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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Christmas Letters

It's the last day of November, so we're shifting into holiday mode. We're at the top of the hill and the downhill path to December 25th is pretty steep. We'll be there before we know it. The To-Do List is growing by the minute. 

One of the first things I like to get done is addressing and sending our Christmas cards. I keep trying to pare the list but it's hard to give up people from my past whom I truly care about, even if our time to reach out and touch one another is an annual event. I want to know what has been happening in their life so I look forward to the cards that come with letters. Whether they are a printed, copied letter or a handwritten note, I enjoy each one. 

Like the stories, essays and articles we write, the letters run the gamut of being rambling to a well-written, brief report of a family's past year. All that's needed are the highlights and the important things. I don't need to know what each grandchild's activities are or what hotel you stayed in on each of six trips. One reason I prefer the personal note is that I can gear what I write to that particular person. There are some who do not know my children and really aren't interested in their lives. Others knew my children in their growing up years and want to know where they are and what is happening with them. 

Some Christmas letters run on and on and ....  One woman I know sends two pages, single spaced and printed on both sides. You can imagine the details she includes. I typically scan the letter for what might be of interest and give up by page 3. Think short!

In my stage of life, lots of the letters bring sad news of either a death or a serious illness. Kind of dampens the holiday spirit, but I do want to know these things. Some finish with a little something positive which helps a lot. Others are still too distraught to do that. 

My short list of things to do or not do when writing your Christmas Letter:
1.  Keep it short
2. Keep it organized, no rambling
3.  Don't make it Grandma's Brag Book
4.  Consider your blessings, not your gripes
5.  Look at #1 again 

Do you have any more to add? What do you like or dislike about Christmas Letters you receive? Comments please.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Nameless Gems

The Ladies Guild at my church celebrates Advent with an annual Brunch. We have two groups involved who alternate hostessing the event. My Circle is responsible this year. One woman is great at decorating, so she always takes on that job. Guess who is given the job of preparing a program? So, here I am searching the cyberworld and my own inner thoughts for something that illustrates our theme.

Months ago, I selected the theme Christmas Hope. We've done agnels, carols, trees, bells. nativity sets in the past, so I wanted something different, but little did I know that my theme would prove difficult. I've searched  bookstores and the library for a children's book that illustrates the hope that the birth of Jesus has given us. Zippo! 

I've spent an eternity of time online looking for quotes, poetry, or a story that fits the theme. I've finally come up with enough material to build my program, but in doing so, I noted something rather sad. At least, for a writer like me, it tugs at my heart.

Many of the better poems and stories I found had no author. The byline or end line only showed Anonymous. Some of these unknown author pieces were true gems. Beautiful, poignant, filled with valuable messages--and yet they remain nameless. 

Someone created these words that have lived on, but they are lost in a swirl of smoke that's drifted off, never to be seen again. And someone else started passing the piece on but neglected to give the author credit. And another someone did the same. 

If you use an admired piece of writing in a program, on your blog or website, or quote from it in an essay you might be working on, give the author credit. If you don't know the author, say so. Even Anonymous means some real person wrote this gem. They deserve to be named.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Add Sensory Details to Memoir Stories

Lots of people write memoir stories or full books. They've been In for quite some time and show no signs of leaving the literary world. A memoir story is a report of what happened in the past. Sounds simple, doesn't it?

If all you do is report what happened, your story may end up being passed around your family but it's doubtful that it will see publication. People don't watn to read a list of what your childhood was like. They want to live it with you.They waant to see it, feel it, smell, hear and taste the time you are writing about. They want the sensory details.

When you write about visiting Grandma and Grandpa on their Minnesota farm, you remember what the barn smelled like when you trotted alongside Grandpa when he did the milking. You know what the old wooden table in Grandma's kitchen felt like when you rubbed a small hand across it. You still delight in the memory of the guinea hens that woke you each morning from outside the bedroom window.

But your reader doesn't experience those things unless you add them to your story. If you say that the guinea hens woke you each morning, you're reporting. If you say, "Each morning, guinea hens screeched outside my bedroom window until I pulled the covers over my head and clapped my hands over my ears to muffle the annoying wake-up call." Now, the reader can hear the guinea hens and see you reacting.

When bringing old memories to mind, pay attention to the five senses. Think back to what you saw, heard, felt, tasted and smelled--whether it was at the farm, in your classroom, or on a picnic at the beach. Show those details in your writing. Note that I said show. Telling isn't enough.

If necessary, write your memoir story as it happened, then go back and add the sensory details. Do this until you start writing them into your story automatically. Your readers will thank you.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Reason To Write Family Stories

Regular readers here know I encourage--OK, a better word is nag---others to write family stories. I mention it often because I think it's important to leave as much of your family history as possible. The medical world has worked hard to make people realize the importance of knowing your family medical history, but the rest of it is worthwhile, as well.

The picture above is of my four grandchildren, taken last summer in Vail, Colorado. What a grand and glorious time we had with them and their parents. We ate breakfast in our condo but lunches and dinners were eaten in restaurants. The family stories moved around the table as one after another were told. The children, ages 4, 7, 12, and 15 paid close attention. Kids love stories, and what better ones to hear than about your grandparents and great-grandparents, or even farther back? 

It's for these four that I'm writing as many family stories as possible. I won't always be around to tell them so I'd like to leave them a written record. I want them to know that part of the people in their background worked hard in the coal mines, that others farmed the rich soil of central Illinois, that some came to America from Ireland while others immigrated here from Germany and French Canada. I want them to know that their great-great grandmother was a womn of independence in a time when it was unusual for a woman to begin her own business. All this and so much more.

Make time to write your family stories for those you love. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

An Embarassing Thanksgiiving

This is a Thanksgiving story I sent to Chicken Soup for their new Food and Love book. The story didn't make it, but maybe it will give you an idea of what my most embarassing Thanksgiving was like. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Blame The Turkey!

Thanksgiving of 1981 brought family to visit and another visitor I didn’t invite. Only a month earlier, I’d pushed our bed away from the wall to clean and something popped in my lower back. Hot, searing pain down my left leg showed up the next morning. The sciatic nerve was inflamed when the herniated disc pushed against it.  I coped as well as I could and it did get better, little by little, with rest and medications.

By Thanksgiving, I felt much better, although not 100%. I bent over to lift the 18 pound  turkey from the oven, and as I grasped the roaster handles, two thoughts crossed my mind. One was that the turkey smelled and looked wonderful, and the other thought was that I should have called Ken to lift it. The turkey finished what had started weeks earlier.
Misery moved into our house that day.

Seven months later, I had surgery for the herniated disc I’d tried to live with. My family suffered along with me during those months and in recovery. Not with the kind of pain I had but because of all the things I could no longer do. I had to say no to many invitations, missed games the kids had, couldn’t make a lot of the special dishes they loved and needed more help in the house than I ever had. They were willing workers at first, but it got old fast.

To make matters worse, I experienced a rare set of complications after surgery and stayed   in the hospital eleven days. I came home with worse pain than I’d had before. My progress moved at a turtle’s pace, and my family soon lost sympathy. My husband wondered if I’d ever be normal again. And so did I.

One afternoon, I sipped a cup of steaming tea. I knew I had to do something to get my life back the way it once was. I wanted my children to love me again, not resent me because of the things I could no longer do. I wanted a husband who wasn’t afraid to touch me for fear of hurting me all over again.

So, I began to read and listen. I used my library as my resource for books about back pain. I read incessantly. I listened to a couple other friends who had gone through much the same thing. Networking wasn’t a common term in the ‘80’s, but I definitely did it in my own way.

At a dinner party one evening, our host placed his hand on mine as I moved my chair back from the table. “Don’t try to stand up that way,” he said. “Place your hands on the table and push yourself up. It’s much easier on your back.” It did help.

“Sleep with a pillow between your knees,” a nurse had told me some time earlier, so I tried it. I didn’t moan when I got out of bed the next morning. I wasn’t ready to do cartwheels, but I did stand up straight instead of being hunched over like an old crone.

The years sped by, and I put all the things I’d learned about sciatica and herniated discs into practice. I wasn’t without pain, but it wasn’t constant.  The discomfort became something that I learned to live and deal with.

And then, in 1997, I shifted to the left while sitting in a chair. Pop! I felt it happen. And soon I was back to the searing pain in my leg and lower back pain. I did all the things I had learned, but nothing helped. One day, my left leg collapsed as I stepped down from the porch. It happened so fast, I just lay in a heap wondering how I ended up on the sidewalk.

Only days later, I started down the basement stairway when the leg collapsed again, but this time I grabbed a railing and kept myself from tumbling to the bottom. It was time to see a neurosurgeon. After an MRI and other tests, he confirmed what I already knew—another disc had herniated. Surgery would be necessary. Otherwise, the muscles in my left leg would keep deteriorating. It took little to convince me, but the well-known doctor could not fit me into is schedule for another month.

Each day found me worse than the day before until I finally had to give up and stay in bed. Then, my widowed mother broke her arm and my brother called and said he’d be bringing her to my house as she couldn’t cope alone. I tried to tell him that I didn’t think I’d be much help, but the next day, he brought Mom to our house.

I managed to get out of bed to fix breakfast and lunch and Ken helped with dinner. Mon really was helpless with only one arm and other problems she had. The worst day came when I could not even walk down the hall to go to the kitchen to make lunch. I crawled on hands and knees, tears brimming from the pain.

When Mom saw me, she said, “I’m going home. You can’t do this.”  She called my brother and he came to get her the next day.

The surgery went well this time, and I was home on the third day. My recovery period moved along with steady improvement. I went to therapy three days a week, and I walked daily as instructed by the doctor. I took three ten-minute walks a day, increasing the time as the days went by until I walked 30 minutes two to three times daily. I persisted because of what my doctor told me. The walking, he said, brings oxygen to the surgical site and aids in healing. That knowledge kept me walking.

Two months after the surgery, we flew to England where we spent three weeks touring with friends. I climbed flight upon flight of stairs in the tube stations in London, and I walked miles around palaces and museums. I continued to do the exercises the therapist had given me. I went to bed tired every night, but I didn’t have to deal with major pain any longer.

I still do all the little things I learned over the years.  Sometimes, I forget and lift something heavier than I should or I twist the wrong way, and then I have mild sciatic pain in my left leg for a couple days. But I take an anti-inflammatory medicine, sleep  with a pillow between my knees and before long, I’m fine again. And whenever I have a flare-up, I make sure I get outside and walk. It helps so much. I try to walk on a regular basis, because if I slack off, that’s when I’m apt to have a couple miserable days.

I’ve learned to live with a bad back, and I keep all the helpful things in mind.  I ask my husband or my son to lift the turkey roaster now.

One doctor said it best, “We can do a lot with surgery, but we can’t give you a new back. It’s up to you to take care of it the best you can.” Smart man!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

There's A Story Here---Someday

You can find a story idea almost anywhere. I found one early this morning.

I staggered down the hall to the kitchen at 7 a.m., still not fully awake. Strange, since I'd been lying in bed since 5:30 wondering why I couldn't sleep. Too many things on my mind. The day before Thanksgiving is cooking day and I have a list of things that needed my attention. I decided to make the Sour Cream Muffins right away. We could each have one with our cereal later in the morning. Brilliant idea? Maybe not.

I gathered the ingredients on the counter, except for the cinnamon/sugar topping I'd need. The half-pint jar was on the top shelf of the lazy susan in an upper cabinet. I reached up and behind a few other items. The sleeve of my robe caught on a bottle of soy sauce. It started to tumble and I caught it with my free hand, still holding onto the sugar jar. All was fine until the worcestershire sauce bottle got into the act. It did a flip, knocking over all the flavoring bottles next to it, and as I reached to grab it, the sugar jar slipped out of my hand, hit the granite countertop and broke into a gazillion pieces. Cinnamon-laced sugar landed on the counter and floor.

I didn't say a word, possibly because of my still groggy condition. Instead, I looked at the mess on counter and floor. Glass everywhere and most of the sugar on the floor. I decided I'd sweep up the glass with a broom and dustpan, then vacuum the rest. To get the broom, I had to walk across the sugar. Trust me, you do not ever want to walk on sugar! Crunch, slippery, nasty stuff.

I swept up the glass and part of the sugar, dumped it in the trash and then vacuumed the entire kitchen floor to make sure no errant piece of glass had been missed.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Back To Basics--Staying On The Topic

Ever read an essay that crosses lines like a car driven by a guy whose been partying too long? Back and forth from one subject to another and never saying a whole lot. It happens more than you might think. You're more likely to read one like this in a critique group, but they do slip by occasionally as a published piece.

How does it happen? We have an idea for an essay and start writing. Before you can say Grammar Teacher, something triggers a memory or another thought and you add it to what you've already written. Three more paragraphs and you think of something else that is only mildly related, but you like it and add that, too. Before you know it, your essay is weaving across clearly marked lines and it can even turn into two separate essays.

In high school, English teachers preached about the topic sentence. It's one sentence at the beginning, or close to the beginning, of your essay that defines the entire piece. It's almost like watching a movie preview. It tells the reader what he/she is going to find in the wh Everything that follows should pertain in some way to it. 

If you suddenly decide to add a personal anecdote, or a piece of your past, that's fine. But it should be pertinent to the subject. And keep it brief. If you talk about Aunt Sally, the reader doesn't need to know how Aunt Sally is related to your family, or where she grew up, or what kind of pie she makes--unless those things are important to the point you're making.

That topic sentence you wrote is your guiding light. Keep it shining on one straight path. Your probability of having the essay published is much greater if you do so.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Writer's Thankfulness List

It's Thanksgiving week which brings to mind many holiday dinners in the past when someone at the table starts to verbally list things he is thankful for. When he finishes, he turns to the person next to him and says, "How about you? What are you thankful for?" And it keeps going around the table with rapid reduncancy since many of us are thankful for the same things. It's done with sincerity by the person who flips the switch to Thankfulness, but often others groan at the mere thought of having to contribute. Rather than make a scene by refusing, we comply. We sometimes surprise ourselves at what pops out.

Today I'm going to flip the Thankfulness switch to On for writers. What blessings are there in your writing world? What parts of your writing life are you truly thankful for? Or have you ever thought about it? Do you keep your personal life and writing life separated by a six foot wide moat or do you blend the two together?

Take a few minutes sometime this week to think about gratitude for what your writing life has given you. Make a list. You can do it. You're a writer! Post your list somewhere visible and keep it there as a reminder when your writing life is slow or seems hopelessly stuck. What started out as a thankful list could turn into encouragement to soldier on.

My Writing World Thankfulness List
I am thankful for:
1.  doing something that I enjoy to the fullest extent
2.  having the opportunity to share my thoughts with others through publication
3.  the many good friends I've made
4.  the opportunity to learn to be more patient
5.  the joy that writing a good story/essay/poem brings
6.  being able to be creative
7.  the growth I've seen in my writing over the years
8.  rejections which make me take a harder look at my work
9.  the mental exercise writing affords me
10. a way to offer encouragement or entertainment to others

This is only a beginning. I'm sure I'll think of others as the week goes on. I hope you will, also.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Color Me Blushing!

OK, I blew it! Yep, I missed reminding you to observe National I Love To Write Day. Only missed it by 3 days, but I did miss it! Did you celebrate without me? Or did you forget, too? If you did, you and I can still celebrate today.

For the uninitiated, this annual day, set aside to recognize the joy and importance of writing, started as a grass roots movement by Delaware author, John Riddle. His aim has been to bring an awareness of the benefit of writing to people around our nation, especially children in school. November 15th is the day he selected.

Now, in the tenth year, more and more schools (20,000 last year) are promoting National I Love To Write Day and this year, nine states issued proclomations to do the same. It's not a day meant to encourage only professional writers but to inspire all people to spend some time writing.

There are myriad forms of writing which can be accomplished on November 15th. You might write an essay, a story, an article, a profile of someone you admire, or a letter to someone you know.  It could be a poem or a letter to the editor of a newspaper. You could write a simple paragrpah about anything. But write!

With the greater and  greater school participation, more materials were needed. So, now there is a book to encourage children to write. The I Love To Write Book is a specialty book that can be used year around but especially on November 15th.

I'm going to circle the date on my 2012 calendar so that it doesn't slip by me next year. I'm one who takes every opportunity to promote writing. Color me blushing!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

About Books On Writing

One good way to get inspired to write is to read a really outstanding book about the craft of writing. There are tons of books about writing and all that it entails. I sometimes wonder if writers who can no longer produce fiction suddenly decide to tell others how to do it until they find a new story to write. A bit of a cynical view, but an awful lot of them come up with tools for writers kind of books.

So, how do you find one of these books? Try googling keywords like best books on writing. I just did that, and you can click on the link to go to the page I found lisitng many possibilities.

Listen to what others writers have to say about books on writing that they like especially well. A personal recommendation holds a lot of weight. It might be from another writer friend, or it could be a book that a person speaking at a conference suggests. Pay attention when someone talks about a book they like.

A third way would be to spend some time in a bookstore that is big enough to have a good selection of books on writing in their reference section. Now you know that telling a writer to spend time in a bookstore is akin to sending a child into a candy store. Browse through the how-to-write books until you find something that reaches out and grabs you. Give it a go!

One of my favorites for fiction writers (and creative nonfiction) is Beginnings, Middles and Ends by Nancy Kress. It's one of the Writers Digest series of books for writers.

How about you? What are some of your favorites? Put them in a comment to share with readers.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

One Way To Get Inspired To Write

constant discussions

One of the best ways to find inspiration in your writing world is to attend a conference. Our mid-month log has just been sent out at wrtersandcritters, and there was a marked increase in the number of submissions since our conference ended. The picture above shows a small group working on a writing activity at an earlier conference. 

The activities, writing exercises, workshop presentations and the continual conversations among the writers in attendance is equivalent to swallowing a horse-sized inspirational pill. I have a feeling some of the women started writing while on the plane going home. If not with pen and paper, they were doing it mentally. 

Mary Bowers presentation on branding

This is Mary talking about Branding for Writers. She's a successful graphic artist who also writes. She's multi-talented as she is tops in both fields. She introduced us to a new concept--how we brand ourselves as writers to the rest of the world. Once again, we were inspired after listening to her.

Nancy on blogging

In the picture above, I'm talking to the group in 2010 about blogging. Only a few were into blogging at that time, but more had delved into it by this recent conference. Maybe they were partly inspired by what I had to say. I'd like to think so, anyway. This year, I tried to inspire them to try writing creative nonfiction for anthologies like Chicken Soup for the Soul.

It doesn't matter if the conference you attend is a small, personal one like ours or a large one with hundreds of people attending. You'll still come home inspired to write. How long that inspiration lasts is up to you. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Slashing Words--Hurt or Help?

We take pride in the words we string together. We love them, and the last thing we want to do is get rid of them. It just plain hurts.

There have been many instances when people in my online critique group submit a story they've spent hours on only to have the critters suggest getting rid of this paragraph or that sentence. The reasons given are usually It's redundant. or This is information for a separate essay. or Your readers will lose interest with the length of your description. There are others, but you get the idea. Sometimes we write things that are not necessary to our story and may even detract from the main thrust of the story, essay or article.

Only recently, I subbed a story for a new Chicken Soup book to my crit group. I thought I'd done a  fairly good job on it, but I know that I need other eyes on the story to re-enforce my opinion. Other eyes did not agree with me. In fact, several suggested slashing two full paragraphs that concluded the story.

Whoa! Two full paragraphs, many sentences and words that came from my heart? The agony of slashing those words hit like a blow to the gut. But then I read the story from start to finish twice. The first time I read it in full, and the second time I stopped before I came to those final paragraphs.

Guess what? The story had far more impact without them. It was perfectly clear at that point. But doggone it, I liked those two paragraphs that had to go. Still, I knew they didn't belong. But all is not lost as two or three people who critted that story said that the final two paragraphs might be expanded into a personal essaay, completely separate from the first story. My precious words can be saved!

No matter how much it hurts to slash parts of what you've written, it's only going to help in the long run.  The result will most likely be a tighter, better story that holds your readers' interest.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Memory Book--November

We're well into November. Have you written your childhood memories of this month? If you started doing it last January and continued each month, you should have a nice booklet in the works for your children and grandchildren to cherish for years to come. Or, the memories that you write about can be turned into publishable material for magazines like Good Old Days or Memoir Journal. (The links will take you to submission information).

If you haven't tried this, a good way to begin is to think back to your growing-up days. What was the weather like in November? What kinds of activities did you do in school that month? What kind of clothes did your mom insist on in November? What special foods did you eat? How did your family celebrate Thanksgiving? The more you think about it, the more memories will come. Include your early adult years, too.

Here's one I wrote a few years ago which includes childhood and beyond:

November In Chicago
By Nancy Julien Kopp

The crisp, sunny days of October somehow slid into damp, gray ones during November in the Chicago area where I grew up. For some reason unknown to most of its inhabitants, the sun played hide-and-seek in the late autumn and winter months, mostly hiding. Wind swept across Lake Michigan, bringing a chill that seeped through warm, woolen jackets and into the bones of both young and old. Leaves which had fallen and not been raked yet, swirled around our feet with each new gust of wind, and naked tree branches dipped and swayed like ballerinas announcing that winter would soon begin. We walked faster on our way to and from school, and Mother often commented that we had roses in our cheeks when we arrived home, nice way to describe chapped skin. We paid little mind to our rosy cheeks once inside our warm apartment.

Each of the five rooms in our apartment had a large radiator with an on-off knob on the side, and a narrow deep pan that hooked over the back which Mother filled with water to bring the humidity levels up. Our large building had steam heat, fired by a huge coal furnace in a garden level basement. I guess you’d call it a half-basement. There was a window in the furnace room where the coal man inserted a chute from his truck and soon sent the coal rumbling down the chute while a group of us kids gathered around to watch. The coal man stood guard outside, and the apartment janitor stood at the delivery end of the chute in the basement. The coal man’s face matched the product he delivered making the whites of his eyes stand out prominently. Once this scary looking man finished, the kids ran around to the basement door to witness the next step in bringing heat to all our apartments. John, the janitor, grabbed a big shovel and fed the furnace from that huge heap of coal. He let us watch for a few minutes, then snarled at us. “Get out of here now. No place for you kids.” And his fierce look sent us scattering. Once, there was a coal strike, and we had very little heat for several days. We wore our coats and hats and even gloves inside until we heard the blessed sound of pipes rattling and radiators hissing once again.

We celebrated Armistice Day every November 11th, commemorating the armistice signed to end WWI at the 11th hour on the 11th day of November, 1918. Even after WWII, Armistice Day remained as November 11th. Now, we call it Veterans Day and it’s celebrated the second Monday of November. There are still parades and speeches, breakfasts and lunches served in places like the American Legion Hall, but somehow it doesn’t have the same meaning as it did when I was a child, and the date remained constant.

The next big event in November was Thanksgiving. We celebrate now much as we did then. The menu remains the same as it was when my mother and my aunts prepared the dinner—turkey roasted to a golden brown and stuffed with a moist dressing redolent with sage. One of my aunts made an additional stuffing that she baked alongside the turkey. This one was a family recipe from the French side. Sausage added to it gave it a spicier taste. We had mashed potatoes and rich gravy made from the turkey drippings, sweet potato casserole with a marshmallow topping, homemade yeast rolls, cranberry sauce, a salad called Seafoam made with lime jello, cream cheese, mashed pears and whipped cream. Our vegetables were usually green beans. Pumpkin pie and apple pie finished off our feast. Real whipped cream topped the spicy pumpkin pie, and vanilla ice cream and perhaps a piece of cheddar cheese graced the plate with the apple pie on it.

My father had two older sisters who lived in the Chicago area with their families, so we usually celebrated Thanksgiving with one or both of them, trading homes from year to year. My five cousins, my three brothers and I had a wonderful time together, despite the wide range of ages. After dinner, we were shooed outside to play, even when it was very cold. I suspect the adults sat around and drank more coffee, nibbled on the leftovers and did all they could to put off the dishwashing time.

No dishwashers in those days, so all the women pitched in and cleared the table, washed and dried the dishes, often with towels made from flour sacks. When my female cousins and I got older, we were drafted into the kitchen to help. Chattering women and clattering dishes, that’s what was heard in the kitchen after dinner. We were probably better off, as we got some exercise after eating so much, while the men plunked themselves into chairs and listened to the radio, and in later years, watched the small screen TV we had.

Occasionally, it would snow on Thanksgiving Day but seldom enough to keep anyone from getting to wherever their dinner might be.

When I got married, I thought about asking my parents and my brothers to come to our house for Thanksgiving, but I hesitated to do so for fear of upsetting my mother who had cooked countless Thanksgiving turkeys. My aunts had passed away, so Mom was always the hostess. After a few years, I worked up the courage to suggest it, and Mom threw her hands skyward and said, “Finally! I’ve been waiting for someone to invite me for Thanksgiving for years.” After that, when we lived close enough, Thanksgiving for the extended family that lived nearby was at our house.

Now, my children both make the trip home for Thanksgiving every other year, bringing their families to share in the Thanksgiving traditional menu. We use a few shortcuts now, and we load the dishwasher instead of drying dishes with flour sack towels, but the grandchildren revel in being with cousins just as I did all those years ago. The faces around the table may be different, but the same warmth of a family gathering to give thanks and spend time together is there. May it ever be so.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Any Soldier--Any War

The following is a repeat of a Veterans Day essay published last year. Today we remember and honor those who have served in many conflicts throughout our country's history. 

Any Soldier, Any War—Maybe You Know Him
By Nancy Julien Kopp

Some call it Veterans Day while others say Remembrance Day. They are the same day commemorating the same wars, the same men who gave their lives fighting for what they believed in. Some volunteered while others got drafted, but most carried an unseen banner of the country they loved right next to their heart.

One young man left mother and father, sweetheart and friends. Gone were his carefree summer days, spent with boyhood chums. Schoolbooks lay forgotten, dust settling over the covers. Baseball bats and marbles, toy cars and lead soldiers tumbled into a box, saved for the next generation. A letter jacket hung in the closet, placed there by a boy. Would a man return to claim them? 

The boy who braved the high school football field turned into a young man whose hands trembled as they quickly wiped a tear from a cheek the first time he went into combat. Knees quaked and his heart beat double-time until training of both boot camp and a lifetime before that kicked in. That little unseen banner of his country fluttered right over his heart bringing calm and a determination to do all deemed necessary. 

He fought in scorching heat and bitter cold, through fields of flowers in spring and myriad fallen leaves in autumn. He battled on both daytimes and in moonless nights.

In the quiet times, thoughts spiraled backward to home, to Mom and Dad, and Christmas trees, and baseball games on the radio, and to turkey dinners and ice cream sundaes. He fingered a treasured photo of Carol, the girl he loved, and swallowed the lump in his throat that rose whenever he studied her face. He’d taken the picture on one of the last days before he left for the army camp. A wisp of her dark hair had blown across her forehead, and her hand looked poised to sweep it back into place. She’d posed with her free hand on a hip and a quirky smile on her face, as though she might make a wisecrack at any moment. He slipped the picture into his pocket when the thunder of guns drew closer. 

He adjusted his helmet, gripped his rifle in both hands, and scanned the line of trees ahead. Was there some soldier from the other side creeping closer? Did he, too, think of home during a lull in the fighting? Did he slip out a photo of the girl he loved? Wasn’t he fighting for his country, too? The insanity of it all sometimes swept over him like a wave crashing on the beach.

Countries disagreed and made war, but only the men who fought were lost. Some soldiers died, while others lived to carry the horrors of war forever, to hide them deep within letting them surface only occasionally. Yes, men were lost, but the countries rose again from the ashes like a phoenix to grow strong, to wait for the next generation, to wage war yet again.

He promised himself to never forget his fallen comrades, the towns and families they’d liberated, the good that evolved from the scathing waste of war. He’d march in every Veterans Day parade until his legs would carry him no more. And he’d wipe a tear from his cheek when other boys left childhood things to cross the sea and fight the next enemy. He’d wear the poppy in his buttonhole right over the unseen banner that still fluttered across his heart. For God and country, he would remember with both pride and regret for those who did not return.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Satisfaction--The Other Side of the Coin

We read a lot about the frustrations in the writing life. There are plenty of them to face on a regular basis. Writing books tend to concentrate more on the frustrations than the other side of the coin--satisfaction. A few of my thoughts on that subject follows.

One of the best parts of being a writer comes with the publication of your work. It’s comparable to a gift placed in a golden box and tied with a silver bow, your name on top. Here’s where the satisfaction side of the coin shows up. No matter how many times your work is published, it’s a pleasure. It definitely erases some of that frustration, which never disappears completely but can diminish and become of less importance with each success.

Sometimes satisfaction comes from the fulfillment in achieving a completed story, novel, article or essay. Many writers begin a project and never finish. I’m willing to guess that most writers have folders with half-done projects. But it’s those completed pieces that allow satisfaction to enfold us like a soft, silken shawl. Revel in it when it occurs.

What joy there is when inspiration hits while we’re doing a mundane household task, or driving a carpool. Maybe a character begins to form in your mind when waiting for a bus, or a word you’ve sought reveals itself during a conversation with a friend.

Another form of satisfaction comes when an editor assigns a project and we manage to  return it completed with all points covered. Writing on speculation is much easier than writing to a specified set of objectives. For assigned articles, a writer must do the research, write a first draft, revise and edit her work, then check to see if she’s covered everything asked for. Including all points asked for requires good concentration and writing skill, so any satisfaction at the end is well-earned.

Escaping into another world while writing is one more form of satisfaction. While writing, we create a place of refuge, creativity, and personal meditation that can prove emotionally fulfilling.

Plan to keep the satisfaction side of the coin face up. It’s a lot more fun than the frustration side and is bound to make you a more productive, more creative writer.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Writing Exercise Number Four

This is the final in a series of writing exercises I've been posting. This is one we did at the conference I attended a couple weeks ago. It helps with writing sensory details. We need to develop our ability to include those sensory details that can only make a good story even better. Do more of these exercises and adding these types of details will become an automatic response when writing.

The writer sees, hears, tastes, touches and smells when writing a story. We 'live' it as we write it, but the reader doesn't have that benefit. You, the writer, must write with sensory details so that the reader can experience it, as well  So, how about trying the following exercise? Do it today and maybe once a month.

Create a sentence or short paragraph for the following:

1.  Describe something you would see at a street fair
2.  Describe the texture of clothing you like or dislike
3.  Describe a city smell you like or dislike
4.  Describe a sound or sounds associated with a farm
5.  Describe a taste reminiscent from your childhood

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Writing Exercise Number Three

Write a descriptive paragraph or two depicting a color without naming the color. Example: Lady Gwyn's robe resembled a ripe plum. (This is ony a sentence, but you get the idea) Your paragraph will be rich with sensory details.

Try writing about a color without naming it for the following:

1. silver

2. pink

3. blue

4. purple

5. black

Monday, November 7, 2011

Writing Exercise Number Two

Writing Exercise Number Two

This exercise gives you free rein. I'll give you the starting place and you can take off in any direction that comes to mind.

The Exercise:
   Write details for the images the following phrases bring to mind.

1.  a purple chair

2.  laundry in a wicker basket

3.  an open back door

4.  five camels

5.  an international airport

6.  a broken cup

7.  six ducklings

8.  grandmother's silver locket

9.  a wilted rose

10.  a sink filled with soapy water

Friday, November 4, 2011

Writing Exercise Number One

1.  Today, we begin our series of writing exercises. Practice like a concert violinist. Practice like a pro football player. Practice like a ballerina. But practice your writing skills on a regular basis.

Freewriting Exercise:

A Freewrite Exercise may seem like pure nonsense to you, but it can bring interesting results and ideas for future stories/essays/articles.

1. Pick a word from a book, a dictionary, thesaurus--anywhere. Close your eyes, point your finger and use the word where that finger lands.

2. Set a timer for ten minutes

3.  Start writing whatever comes into your mind and don't stop until the timer announces the end of your ten minutes.

It may be gibberish at the beginning, but the brain kicks in and sometimes you end up with good results. Occasionally, it will continue to be gibberish, but that's OK. I often start with words that rhyme with the word chosen and an idea will come from one of those. The randomly selected word may trigger a long-buried memory of an actual event or experience. Or it might give you the beginning of a fiction piece, or at least the bones of a story to be fleshed out later.

Try one of these Random Word Freewrites each morning as a warm-up to whatever your writing project is for the day. Ten minutes is all it takes, and it will be time well-spent. My critique group does this exercise and sends the result to the rest of the group. One little word brings interesting and varied responses.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Perseverance Pays Off

Rhone American Cemetery
I promised some writing exercises to begin today, but I'm going to postpone a day. Instead, I'd like to let you know about a writing project that proved difficult for me. Perseverance paid off with a published article. 

I've written about trying to write a personal essay about the WWII Rhone American Cemetery we visited in France during the summer of 2010. I knew I wanted to write about our visit, but when I got home,, the essay I hoped for just would not come. I couldn't pinpoint the feelings I'd had there. I tried, put it away, tried again. Finally sent it to my online crit group. They pointed out that something was missing. Well, I knew that! It's why I asked for help. To be fair, they did highlight things that were missing, and they did urge me to keep working on it as it could be a worthwhile essay eventually.

I read it over and over and finally ended up filing it in the To Be Worked On folder where it stayed for many months. In mid-summer of this year, I pulled it out and worked on it again. This time, it came out more like I'd wanted it to the first gazillion times I tried to write it. I sent it to the editor of 
The Best Times and she accepted immediately for their November issue which would be dedicated to Veterans. She asked for some pictures which I sent later. 

You can read the essay here. It received a full page along with two pictures. I'm so glad that I didn't leave the piece to gather dust in that folder filled with things I need to work on. It's a story I wanted to share with others and so I persevered. Those who read my blog frequently know that my two keywords for the writing world are Patience and Perseverance. I'm not sure how patient I was, but the second keyword paid off. 

If you have a project you're having trouble with, don't give up. Keep at it. Maybe not on a constant basis. Bring it out every now and then. It may look quite different to you after you've been away from it. The biggest problem can suddenly be flooded with the light of a new dawn. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Hone Your Writing Skills With Exercise

We read constantly that we need to exercise our bodies. Keep moving! That's the mantra in this 21st century. And a good one one it is.Seniors are also advised to exercise their minds. Makes sense. If the boedy needs to keep moving, so does the mind.

Writers can take it one step farther. They need to do exercises to sharpen their writing skills. Is that muttering I hear coming form dissenters? Do I hear snippets of things like "I don't want to practice, I'm ready to write." Or "I'm not a newbie, there's no reason for me to do writing exercises."  Or "I don't have time to devote to writing exercises. I need to work on publishable pieces."

Well, think again! Writing exercises benefit the newbie writer, the intermediate and the advanced, as well. Concert pianists who perform would never give up practice time. Star athletes still put in practice time.

My husband and I saw the Yamoto Japanese Drummers a few weeks ago. They were so in tune with another that their show was sheer perfection. I read in the program notes that they spent hours and hours each week practicing. They were skilled musicians, who were not satisfied to continue without keeping those skills razor sharp.

As writers, we need to take that same attitude. So, for the next few days, I'm going to post some writing exercises. Try them and see which ones appeal to you, which ones are easy and those that are difficult. Can you guess which ones are going to improve your writing skills the most?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Bookful Of Advice In Eight Words

I was browsing through facebook early on the morning of my conference presentation last week when I ran across a quote someone had posted. It hit me right between the eyes. It was the perfect way to open my session on All About Anthologies. It was the perfect quote for a group of serious writers, and it would work for almost anyone anywhere. I wrote it on the top of my notes for the presentation. It deserves capital letters, so what's below is not shouting but to show its worth. Then again, maybe it is shoutig, for that's what I'd like to do with this one--shout it loud and clear.

How very simple those words are but filled with both wisdom gained from experience and advice for the future.  When I used the quote as my opening, it was well received. Someone said, "I need to put that on a sign above my computer!" and several others echoed her response. I'm planning on having it tacked up somewhere in my office where I can see it every day. It will remind me to forget about whatever rejections I've had on submissions sent and to look forward to those yet to come. It will remind me to forget the struggles of learning a craft I love and allow me to move in one direction--straight ahead.

There are other old quotes that mean much of the same thing. Ones like Don't cry over spilled milk. and It's water over the dam. Maybe I like the one above because it's new, not the old cliches of these others, but whatever it is, I will keep it in mind as I continue in my writing world. I hope you will, too.

I did a search to try to find the author of the quote but had no success. Whoever he/she is deserves credit for a bookful of advice given in a mere eight words.