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Friday, May 31, 2013

So, Where Are We?

Monet's Home

One of the sessions at the writers conference I attended in April dealt with making sure your stories and creative nonfiction gave the reader a sense of place

It's not enough to say that you visited Monet's home in Giverny, France. You need to add enough details to give the reader a clear picture of where the famed artist's home is. Let them feel the surroundings as the person who makes a visit there would. 

Add sensory details. What did the air feel like, smell like? For me, there is a difference in the way the air feels on humid days versus dry ones, clear days versus stormy. If the gardens were in full bloom, was the air scented with the aroma given by the flowers? What about sounds? Bees buzzing, leaves rustling in the breeze? 

Beyond the sensory details of the immediate area, you can add something about the area where the home is situated. Show the reader whether it is surrounded by other homes, businesses etc. Let them feel what Giverny itself is like. 

Family together on a beach
A family on a beach

Look at this picture. Write a paragraph that gives the reader a sense of place. It's obviously a beach, but what about the kind of beach it is. Is it a private one or public? What kind of people inhabit the beach? What kind of sealife or animals are found there? Climate? Businesses around the area? Wealthy or poverty area? Give the reader an idea of the surroundings as well as what this family is doing. Add sensory details. You don't want to write sentence after sentence of pure descritpion, however. Intersperse it in the narrative so that the reader absorbs it unknowingly. 

When you tell a story, it's the little extras like giving a sense of place that makes your writing better than average. Often the writer knows the place in their mind so well that they forget the reader does not. Let them see what you already know. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Snoopy Is A Wise Dog

Writers ride a roller coaster throughout their career--whether it be a professional or hobbyist. Acceptances are those times when you have climbed the steep hill and reach the top. From there, the world around you looks mighty nice. The sky is blue with fluffy clouds, flowers are blooming, and people smile.

Ride that roller coaster car down into the deep valleys of rejection and the scene around you changes in a hurry. Gray storm clouds gather, the flowers suddenly look like pesky weeds and people you see are frowning. Our perception changes with those ups and downs in our writing world.

We don't need tips on how to handle the successes in our writing life too often. Although there are times when success presents its own set of problems. That's for another post on another day.

We need to learn what to do when that roller coaster car roars into the downward decline, sreeching all the way to the bottom. No wait--that was you doing the screeching. Snoopy, in the poster above, has some good advice when you hit bottom.

Neither one costs a dime, nor do you need to leave your home to do what this wise little dog suggests. It's up to you, however, where to find that good laugh. Pick up a joke book, watch a silly youtube video, or tune in to your favorite sitcom. Call your favorite funny friend.

The second part is easy. Schedule an early bedtime and clear your mind completely when you climb into bed. Don't dwell on that nasty rejection you received. In the morning, it's highly possible that you'll be able to look at the situation in a different light. Maybe even a long afternoon nap will help.

Remind yourself that it is not you that was rejected. It was the piece you wrote and submitted. There are numerous reasons that the editor did not scoop it up. Look at it as objectively as you can, do some revisions if you see places that can use it and send that baby out to another editor. Don't ever give up with one try.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Celebration of My Blessings

My post today is not going to center on writing. This is my birthday, my special day of the year, one I look forward to. Not for the presents and cake so much as the many greeting cards and email or facebook messages, and the phone calls. 

It's not because I seek attention, although that is always rather nice. Instead, each year I am reminded by all the greetings I receive that I am blessed with so many friends and a wonderful family. You can't wrap friendship in a box and tie it with a pink ribbon but it's a treasured gift to be valued each and every day of the year. When my birthday arrives every May 29th, it is a reminder of what all these people mean to me now and for years past. You can't put family in a gift box either but they are priceless in value.

When the mailman delivers those many envelopes that hold birthday cards, I open them to read both the verse and the personal note or letter that comes with many of them. Each signature says Love and a name of someone I care about. Every time I see the name on one of the cards, I'm reminded of so many good times with the person or about some wonderful words they had for me when I needed them most. I think of the support given to me when I ventured into the writing world. And so much more.

I can group these people into high school friends, college friends, teaching days friends, those whose friendship develped in the different communites we've lived in during our marriage, bridge player friends, church friends, P.E.O. friends, writer friends and more. I consider each one of those people a blessing in my life. They have all added to my world in ways they may never realize. As have my family--including my husband, children, grandchildren, sisters-in-law, brothers-in-law, my brothers, nieces and nephews. 

So, a heartfelt thank you to all of you who have been a part of my life for these ____ years! (Didn't think I was gonna tell you the number did you?) A special thanks to my blog readers, as well. You, too, have given me something special in my writing world.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Time Is One Thing You Can Steal

This morning, I looked at my May calendar that is next to my phone in the kitchen. How in the world did we get to nearly the end of this month already? I had great thoughts way back in the early days of May about stories I wanted to write. Some others that needed revising and still others that I needed to polish up for the Kansas Authors Annual Contest which has a mid-June deadline.

My intentions were excellent but the social activities of this month nearly overwhelmed me. So many organizations hold end-of-year lunches or dinners before summer begins. Then factor in Mother's Day and graduations and birthdays of several people along with the normal routine things, and I found myself with nowehre near the writing time I'd hoped for. 

This past week, we traveled to Illinois to spend a few days with Ken's two brothers. It was a wonderful mini-reunion of the three brothers and their wives, but it sure cut into my writing time. You've read right here more than once about how I advised writers to make time to write. I do believe that, but sometimes life takes over and there is no way to make that time, or at least, no way to make as much time as you'd like. 

So, what am I going to do in this last busy week of May? I'm going to meet my obligations that are sprinkled throughtout the days marked on the calendar. But I'm also going to create a little "me" time so I can work on some of those projects. They may not be large blocks of time, but even 20 minutes or half an hour will help me make some progress. It might mean that I get up earlier and go to bed later than usual this week. I'll survive even if I'm caught yawning now and then. It will most likely be that I don't make meals that require a lot of time to prepare. If a friend calls and invites me over for coffee, I'm going to tell her I'd love to do it next week, that I cannot spare the time this week. 

Even when you feel swamped, you can still make a little time for the projects in your writing world. You only have to be rather creative. Wouldn't that be a good article for a woman's magazine? For the title---Make Time For The Things You Want To Do. Or Stealing Time For Yourself. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Remember The Meaning of Memorial Day

The original meaning of the Memorial Day holiday seems to take second place to those who would celebrate the three day weekend only as a time of picnics, boating, outdoor barbecues--the gathering of friends and family as they enjoy three days in a row off work and/or school

All that is fine, but I would hope that parents teach their children what we are recognizing on Memorial Day. Once celebrated every May 30th, it is now recognized on the last Monday of May. It's a day set aside to honor the memory of those who died while in service to their country. Originally named Decoration Day, the day was meant for those still mourning soldiers killed in the Civil War to visit cemeteries and decorate the graves with flowers. Wives, mothers, sweethearts and perhaps children made a solemn procession to the grave of a loved one. Fathers, brothers and friends came, as well. 

It would seem quite natural to have packed a picnic lunch to be shared nearby after the visit. Maybe this is how the picnic tradition came about. Some families still visit graves of relatives on Memorial Day, bring flowers or small American flags to place on the grave.

As a child, I remember celebrating on the day before Memorial Day every year at our grade school. Each class selected a boy to carry the American flag and a girl to carry a bouquet of flowers grown in some class member's yard. The classes lined up, then strode purposefully and quietly across the street to the Carroll Playground where we spent our recess time on other days. At one end of the playground, there was a tall memorial stone honoring those soldiers who were from our town that had died in WWII. The names were on a metal plaque, letters raised. The American flag fluttered in the breeze on a tall silver flag pole next to the memorial. As each class paraded solemnly by, the sweet-smelling flowers were laid in front of the stone. I remember the trees that shaded this grassy area. No playground dirt here. We gathered in a large group and sang a patriotic song. Then, the school principal, Mr. Schmidt, made a short speech. I can hear his deep bass voice telling us we must always remember what these service men and women gave for us. It impressed me every year as a child and still does.

I've visited three American military cemeteries in Europe, two in France and one in Luxembourg. On Memorial Day, I think about those visits and the emotional impact of seeing the rows and rows of standing crosses in the carefully manicured grounds. So many lives lost and so many families grieving. I wrote about one of those visits in a story published a couple of years ago. You can read Soldiers and Angels here.

This past March we visited the American military cemetery in Normandy, quite close to the landing beaches that played such a dramatic part in bringing the end of WWII closer than ever. The day was cold and rainy, penetrating to our very bones. As I stood within our group of tourists listening to the national anthem, followed by a volley of gunshots and finally the mournful sound of Taps, tears mingled with the raindrops on my cheeks. I could not have spoken a word around the lump in my throat. Those Memorial Day ceremonies at our old school playground were brought to mind. Mr. Schmidt's words about always remembering had not been forgotten.

I hope that you will remember and honor those who gave so much for their country  on this Memorial Day. Enjoy the picnics and barbecues, the time with family and friends, but please remember the meaning of this day.

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Young Woman To Admire

Answers to the whereabouts of the picture prompts of yesterday. #1 was a street carousel in Strasbourg, France. #2 was Peggys Cove, Nova Scotia where a Swiss Airline crashed a number of years ago. The lighthouse in the picture is now a post office. #3 are the Rondavel huts in a camp in Krueger Park Game Reserve in South Africa.

The picture above is of Petra Niedermayerova who is a member of our Kansas State University tennis team. We met her through the student we hosted last year. Janka is from Slovakia and she and Petra were friends. She asked if she could bring Petra to dinner one night in 2011. We have been friends with Petra ever since and have watched her K-State tennis career with great interest, even though I understand only the basics of the game.

Petra is from Brno, Czech Republic and is spending 4 years at K-State playing tennis and studying economics. She is a top student, an excellent tennis player and a lovely person. This week Petra is playing in the NCAA Nationals in Urbana, IL. 

We happened to be coming to the same area to visit one of Ken's brothers. We got here yesterday in time to watch Petra's second singles match on a cold, windy afternoon. She had beaten a girl from Stanford on Wednesday and yesterday, she won a tie breaker over a player fromUCLA. Then last night Petra and her doubles partner, Carla, won their match.

The win yesterday means that Petra has the school record for number of wins. A big congratulations to her!

We are going back to the Tennis Center this morning to watch Petra's next singles match. Win or lose today, she will always be a winner to us. But we're hoping she'll come out on top again today.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

3 Picture Prompts--Guess the Location

Picture Prompt #1

Here is another picture prompt for you. I considered telling you where it was taken, but that might spoil it for you. Better that you start without knowing what town this is. I will tell you that it is not in the USA. I see great possibilities with this one.

All the prompts here today are pictures from trips we have taken. I'll tell you on Friday where they are. Maybe you can come up with a guess. If so, put it in the comments section, check tomorrow and see if you were right. Remember--let your imagination run wild with these prompts.

Picture Prompt #2

This place we visited was very emotional for me. A great tragedy happened here. It also is not in the USA.

Picture Prompt #3

You can probably guess that these places to stay were not in the USA. We spent a pleasant night in one of them. Can you set a story here? Writer a descriptive paragraph? 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Writers Must Write

I've known a lot of people like this, too. They join writers groups but seldom bring anything to read. They prefer talking about the writing world and listening to other people's writing. They dream about the day they will write that smash hit book. They immerse themselves in all things 'writing' but seldom make time or give the effort it takes to actually do the writing. 

This sounds harsh, and perhaps it is. But it does happen far more than you might think. There is nothing wrong in being interested in the literary world and wanting to be around writers. The only wrong thing is if you proclaim yourself to be a writer and then seldom put words on paper (or screen!). 

Why does this happen? I think one reason is fear. What if I am no good? What do I do if I start selling my work? How do I follow up with more? What if someone laughs at what I've written? What if the others in the group tear my story to pieces? These are real fears and a good many people have felt them at some time or other. 

I'm great at giving myself mental lectures. It's easy. Try telling yourself that very few writers are great successes in the early years. We learn through our errors. If I'm in a writing group and they are constantly pointing out my overlong sentences, what I need to do is listen and start writing shorter sentences. If one critique after another mentions that I constantly repeat words, I should check everything for repetitiveness when I edit. If the critiquers tell me that I'm mixing up my tenses throughout the story, it's up to me to check it in the editing process. The main thing is that I learn from what is pointed out. The trick here is to be sure to listen to your own lecture. 

To be a writer, you must write, you need to be willing to have others critique your work. Whether it is in a group or just a buddy writer, find someone to look at what you've written. It's the best way to grow your skill as a writer. 

OK, today I've pushed you about writing something, not just thinking about it. Here's a picture prompt to get you started. You know the drill. Study the picture and start writing. Write whatever comes to mind. Later, you can go back and expand, edit, revise or whatever. But for now, just write!

Staring at sea Free Photo

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Writing Is A Skill

The woman quoted above advises writers to tell a story rather than just stringing words together. Sadly, that is exactly what some writers do when they think they are writing a story.

Keep in mind that a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Three parts that pull together to make a whole. More than once, I've mentioned a book for writers that is invaluable in showing how to do this. Look at your local library or order online or find it in a bookstore, but do take time to read Nancy Kress's book Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. Her instructions in this book work well for both short stories and novels. I'd also add for stories written in the creative nonfiction field.

A story needs a problem to be solved. If everything is just hunky-dory day after day, there is no incentive to the reader to keep reading. The problem size can vary from something pretty small to gargantuan.

Another thing a story needs is one or more characters who the reader can like or relate to. I once read a novel that had numerous characters and not one of them was likeable. The whole thing turned me off in a hurry. I did finish the book because I wanted to see if any of them would shape up into nicer people, but they didn't! Not every character should be likeable. We have to have someone to hiss at, don't we? But give me at least one I can like.

What I've mentioned here are only the basics of writing a story. There are so many more details that must be considered when crafting a tale. Google 'how to write a story' and you'll come up with dozens of articles to read. Writing is a skill that can be learned and must be fed with new learning all the time.

Monday, May 20, 2013

You Are A Story. Write it!

The quote above speaks to me about the importance of each of us writing our own story. You know how often I harp on writing down those family stories so that future generations of your family will have them. It's why I've suggested we all have Memory Books that we can add to on a continuous basis.

Maybe there's more than just those fun family stories to be written. How about writing your own story about you? Memoir has become a strong genre in the past decade or so. More and more people write memoirs and seek a publisher. Who would want to read about me? you might be thinking. Even though many memoir books are about well-known people, there are plenty of them about simple everyday folk like you and me.

Memoir is different from a biography in the respect that a biography tells an entire life story, while a memoir might only focus on certain periods, often uses a theme. Memoir is written in first person and is narrative.

Your story would be filled with both the joys and the disappointments you've encountered.  Perhaps it would include a tragic happening. It might center on the relationship you had with others in your family--both the good and the bad. No tragedy in your life? That's great, but I bet you have enough hills and valleys in the years you've lived to be able to write something of interest to those who know you and maybe to those who don't.

If you keep a Memory Book and add to it now and then, you're actually putting together a memoir, one that might not go in chronological order. Who says it has to start with Day 1 of your life and move on day by day? In fact, if done that way, it can end up being a bit boring.

If you're going to write your story, the story about you, keep in mind that you can use the same techniques as you would in writing a fiction piece. Give the reader a sense of place--let them see the area you grew up in, then maybe where you spend your adult life. The name of the town and state, or country, is not enough. Let your reader feel that place. You know it well, you lived there but you have to let others see it, too.

Use dialogue in part of your memoir. It adds interest, makes people seem more real. Along with that, think about characterization. Just as a novelist creates a character that the reader can see in a mental image, you can write about the people who influenced you in some way with more than a name and giving them a label. Make your readers see them as you did.

Use sensory details and allow your emotions to come forth in your writing. If you don't, it will be flat. It's not always easy to unleash your emotions when writing about yourself. It's something you may need to work on.

My last point here is one made in the poster/quote. Make your memoir about what in your life changed you in some way? Good or bad, large or small--that doesn't matter. I can think of several things in my life that changed me as a person.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Editing Unnecessary Words

Actually, it's not OK to write garbage, but the point here is well-said. Last night, I critiqued a blog post for a member of my writers group. She had a lot of good things to say about her subject matter, but the piece needed editing. It was a first draft which she asked others to read and suggest changes.

She used many unnecessary words, mainly because she wrote in the way we think or speak on a daily basis. We chatter, adding all kinds of phrases and words that contribute little to the main theme of what we're trying to say. My friend is not alone in doing this. It's a common failing and one writers need to address in every story or article they write. Our writing needs to be far more concise than our conversation skills. 

If we add needless words like salt and pepper on a fried egg, the reader can lose subject matter. They have to dig through those additions to find the meat of the story. Some may give up and quit reading.

1.  What are some unnecessary words that can be eliminated? Check the short list below:
  • practically
  • actually
  • sort of
  • kind of
  • particular
  • generally
  • really
2.  One more way to eliminate an unneeded word: If you write a sentence using that before a noun, your sentence loses nothing by cutting it. Example below:

OK:  This is the hotel that Donald Trump built.

Better:  This is the hotel Donald Trump built.

OK:  I loved the dress that you wore to the prom

Better:  I love the dress you wore to the prom.

3.  Don't try for long descriptive sentences when a short one will get the idea across. Yes, there are times we all like to write prose like a poet, but too much of it becomes fodder for those unnecessary word critiques.

In the early days of my writing, I claimed the title of Queen of Unnecessary Words. Thanks to some good critiquers, I soon learned to tighten my writing by eliminating words that had no bearing on the subject. Doing this resulted in a more professional piece that proved easier to read and understand.  Guess what? When I edited this post, I removed a good many of those words that were not needed.

What I've listed above is only a partial list of the unnecessary word syndrome. There are many others. Google 'unnecessary words in writing' to find more detailed articles. When you edit your work, train yourself to look for those words that can be cut. It will take some time but you'll find it easier with practice.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Where and How We Write

Isn't this the perfect spot to sit with your morning newspaper or a book? Sip a cup of tea or savor your first cup of coffee of the day. That's what I'd do in this spot.

There are writers who would sit in that chair with pencil and pad on their lap and create a story, essay, poem or even a feature article. Some will tell you that they do their best thinking with that pad and pencil and in a comfy spot.

There are others, like me, who compose at the keyboard. I think that those of us who long ago used a manual or electric typewriter are the ones who now write initially from the keyboard. It feels right to us. Besides that, it saves time. If you write in longhand, then you have to eventually transpose it to your computer.

Occasionally, I try to write longhand in the car while Ken is driving. Only when we're on a lengthy road trip, not just out running an errand. I find it difficult to write this way and I can't say that I'm often successful in getting a story done right or the way I'd like to.

I do, however, find that the pad and pencil method is great for jotting down ideas or those wonderful phrases that come to mind when you are away from your writing area. Today, when I put in my 40 minutes of walking time, I started planning a new essay. As the birdsong surrounded me on an otherwise quiet morning, I thought of a descriptive phrase that was good enough that I didn't want to lose it. I didn't have anything with me to write it down, but I did make a few notes when I got home.

What's your favorite place to write? An easy chair? At the kitchen table? In a home office? Where are you the most comfortable? And which method do you prefer? Longhand first or write on a keyboard? There is no one right way or one right place. The important thing is to write!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Book Is More Than A Flat Object

We talked yesterday about this being Children's Book Week so let's continue with the book theme.  The poster above talks about the physical make-up of a book, that it's made from a tree, has flexible parts and is a flat object. If that was all a book gave us, they'd gather dust on a table as we ignored this 'object.'

But inside this flat object is the treasure. Actually, one might conisder a book to be a treasure chest like the pirates of old sought on many voyages. In those thousands of words printed inside that flat object we often find the gold. Not every book will offer something so valuable, but many, many of them will.

Part of it is up to the reader to discern which books are treasures and which ones bring nothing new or valuable into their life. I don't like all books in the same way but it's a very few that I ever tossed down in disgust  because I truly hated the book. No matter whether the book appeals in a big way or miniscule, I can reap something from those pages, or moveable parts stated in the poster above.

When I read a book, I am entertained, educated and happy. Yes, those flat objects make me happy. I've written many times about how the library feels like a second home to me, the place where I am most comfortable. When I hold a book in my hands and spend time reading, I feel totally at peace. I can block out any other cares in my life. Reading a book is definitely an escape mechanism in some respects.

How does reading one of those flat objects affect you? What are the feelings you have when you pick up a new book and settle down in a comfy chair to see what is inside?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Give A Child A Book This Week

Knowonder! kids magazine had this poster on their facebook page today, so I am sharing it with you to let you know that May 13-19 is National Children's Book Week. More than once on this blog, I've written about the importance of exposing small children to books.

Read to them even when they are infants, on into the toddler years, then preschool. Once they learn to read on their own, let them read to you and occasionally, you should also read to them. One of the ways our family  passed the time on long road trips when my children were young was that I read a book to them, chapter by chapter, as their dad drove up one highway and down another. They'd often lean their arms on the top of the front seats listening as the story unfolded.

One book I vividly remember reading on a vacation trip was Caddie Woodlawn, which had been a favorite of mine. It's a great story, but when we got to the final chapter, it had me so choked up I could barely get the words out and had to wipe the tears away. And I was not the only one in that car who had the same reaction.

I've read to my children and my grandchildren, and they all loved books when they were quite small. A book can take us places we'd never see on our own. A children's book contains a special kind of magic all its own. Years ago, when I taught third and fourth grades, I read a chapter a day to the class until we finished a book, then off we'd go on another. I chose the time immediately after lunch to get them settled down and ready to get on with classwork.

The authors of early childhood books must tell a full story in a few short pages. Believe me--it's not an easy task. It's far easier to write copious amounts of words that run into a full novel than it is to keep a story contained in only a few hundred carefully chosen words.

Libraries. schools and bookstores all over the USA will sponsor special events this week to promote Children's Book Week. Watch for them and share with the children you know.

You might purchase a children's book someday this week and give it to a child you know, or perhaps even one you don't know. Whether the child is very young, in the middle grades, junior high school, or even high school, they would probably be thrilled to receive a book that was selected just for them. Buy a classic tale or one that is brand new to you. You can spread the love of books like Johnny Appleseed scattered the seeds which grew into strong apple trees.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Write About A 5 Star Mother's Day

 Mother's Day 2013

Last week, I spent three days posting Mother's Day stories about my mother and my grandmother. But yesterday was Mother's Day 2013 and I had my own story. My daughter and her family spent the weekend with us which is a gift that doesn't need any ribbons or bows, but a gift nevertheless.

The picture is of our two youngest grandchildren and me in front of our house yesterday. Cole is 6 and Jordan 9. Grandma is...old enough. You can see in the picture that spring is definitely here now, the amazing shade of green that arrives in spring, the flowering trees and the many pots and beds that my husband keeps filled with colorful flowers. 

Cole and Jordan's other grandparents joined us for a wonderful brunch at the club we belong to. More food than any one human should consume at one time, but we made a good effort. All of us! 

Later in the day, my son called to wish me a Happy Mother's Day. He's far enough away that weekend visits are not feasible but phone calls are nice, too. Besides that nice call, I had several cards and email messages from others wishing me a Happy Mother's Day. 

The day was filled with the warmth of family and friends topped off by the beautiful spring day. 

I will give 5 stars to my Mother's Day 2013. How was yours? How about writing something about it to add to your Memory Book? Do it now while it's still fresh in your mind. That is the important thought in today's post. When you have something to write about, do as soon as possible while you remember the details, while the emotion connected is still with you. Wait a week, two or three and you lose a great deal of what made it special to you originally. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

For Those Missing Their Mothers

A friend who lost her mother this year posted this poignant poster on her facebook page. Those whose mothers are still living will honor them on Sunday. But for those of us who have lost our mothers, the day is bittersweet. I wrote a story about missing my mother on that second Sunday in May a couple of years after she had passed away.. I sent it to Chicken Soup for the Soul and they liked it well enough to publish it in a book on moms. 

So, for those who have lost their mother, whether this year, or many years ago, here is the story. I hope it will give some ease to hurting hearts. 

My mother at age 19

Missing My Mother on Mother’s Day
(The title in the book was changed to With Us In Spirit. A better title, I think)

I stopped at a Hallmark shop the other day to buy Mother’s Day cards for my daughter and daughter-in-law. The aisle where the cards for this special day rested was a long one. There were Mother’s Day cards appropriate to send to everyone from your cleaning lady to your best friend. The colors were soft and spring-like, fitting for the month of May. I moved up and down the aisle looking for cards that worked for Karen and Amy, and suddenly without any warning, an ache started deep inside. It swelled and moved upward, hit my heart and pushed a tear from my eye.

The one card I really wanted to buy was one for my own mother, but she passed away more than two years ago. I could buy the card, write a special note, sign it with love, then seal and stamp it. But where would I send it? Heaven has no post office. A curtain of sadness dropped down and covered me like a shroud for a moment or two. My hand reached out to a card that I knew she’d love. It was lavender and purple, her favorite colors. I read the verse and smiled. This was the one I’d buy her if I could only send it to her. I slipped it back in the rack, picked it up and read it again, then replaced it.

I’m a mother and a grandmother of four, but I still miss my mom. I miss our long talks. She had little formal education, but she possessed a marvelous instinct and insight into human behavior. I learned so much listening to her observations. I miss the stories she told about her childhood in a coal mining town. She made me appreciate the differences in people’s lives. I miss the wonderful pies and cakes she made. I miss her terrific sense of humor and hearty laughter. I miss her hugs.

But as I look around my home, I see her in many places. I see her warm smile in photos carefully arranged in several different rooms. I see her every time I sift through my recipe box and finger the many cards with her handwriting, all so precious now.  I see her when I use my rolling pin, once hers, now mine. Whenever I use it, I’m reminded of the day she taught me how to put just the right pressure on a pie crust with the heavy wooden rolling pin. I see her when I show visitors to our guest room, for the bed is covered with a quilt she made by hand.

On Mother’s Day I will be with my daughter and her family at a Mother’s Day Brunch. To spend the day with a child I love and her husband and children will give me great pleasure. It wouldn’t surprise me if we sense another presence that day, for my mother will be with us in spirit, spreading her love once more.

© 2007                                        Mom at age 83

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Story About My Mother's Mother

Thinking about Mother's Day reminded me that we also consider grandmothers at this time. After all, they are the mother's of our mothers (and our fathers!). So today I'm going to pay tribute to my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Doonan Studham. And perhaps you will write about your own.

Born on a farm in Minnesota to Irish immigrants, she married a coal miner from Iowa. How I wish that I knew the story of where they met. They had five children, two of whom died of diptheria around age 4. In 1929, my grandmother did the unthinkable. 

She left Iowa with my mother, her youngest child, and went to Chicago where her two sons lived.. She and my grandfather lived separated but never divorced until he died. She had no means of income, just enough money to rent a tiny apartment for her and my mother who was 11 at the time. 

Then, she proceeded to build her own business, baking cakes and pies and rolls that she sold to the neighbors. No Health Department inspectors and rigid rules then. Her tiny at-home business grew to the point that she rented space to begin a neighborhood bakery in Oak Park, the Chicago suburb where she and my mother lived. She built it into a good business, adding catering as a sideline. She worked hard, putting in long hours. 

My mother quit high school after one year and helped in the bakery. It was the Depression years and work for teens came above education in many families. I leaned many good life lessons from my grandmother, and more than a few in the hours I spent with my mother at the bakery in my early years. I've written a story about it which you can read below, one that I've posted on the blog in the past but it seemed appropriate to do so again.

Elizabeth Doonan Studham
Lessons In Grandma’s Bakery

 My mother and I spent our mornings in the working area of my grandmother’s bakery during my early years, from 1939 to 1943. I picked up some good habits and learned a few things in a painless way. I watched and I listened. There was no need for a formal lecture.

One of those good habits concerned drinking tea. A long, narrow table, covered with a soft-green oilcloth sat parallel to the north wall in the workroom of the small neighborhood bakery. The table offered a resting place when Grandma, my mother and my Uncle Paul took breaks from the hours spent on their feet. Thick white cups on matching saucers were set before each of us and a plate of some fresh-baked delicacy graced the center of the table.

Grandma brewed the tea in a large brown pot. “You can only make good tea in a brown pot,” she often said as she tipped it enough to pour the steaming brown liquid into our cups. She filled my cup half-full, then added milk and a bit of sugar. “English tea for you,” she’d say before she sank onto the bench that ran the length of the table. She added some sugar to her tea and passed the plate of sweet rolls or cookies or whatever it happened to be that day. She conditioned me to crave a little something sweet when having a cup of tea.

Our tea breaks weren’t long for there was always a new task waiting for these three members of my family. When we’d eaten every crumb on the treat plate and drained our cups, Grandma and Uncle Paul went back to the baking, and my mother relieved the girl who worked in the front room serving customers. I’d kneel on the bench and wait for Adeline to come to the table and pour her own cup of tea. Grandma brought her a small plate with a treat on it, and I chattered while Adeline savored both her tea and a rest.. She was young and pretty with golden curls and always smiling or laughing.

I heard Grandma say one day that Adeline was a good worker despite being so young. “Those Czech girls know how to work. I’d hire another one to help her if I could afford it.” The bakery served as Grandma’s only income, and she watched her pennies carefully. Adeline never complained about low pay. When she finished her tea, she’d give me a hug and hurry back to the front room to continue selling bakery goods from the case and taking orders for later. I peeked around the edge of the doorway and watched as she wrapped the purchases carefully and handed them to the customers along with her warm smile. “There you go,” she’d say. “Come back soon.”

I wanted to go into that front room and spend my time with Adeline. I wanted to talk to the customers, too, but it was forbidden territory. My grandmother told me I must never go through that doorway. My mother told me. My Uncle Paul told me. The lure of that front room with people coming and going proved to be my undoing now and then. Once I started peeking around the doorway, I inched my way through it, quiet as the proverbial church mouse. I tried to stand behind the bakery cases and watch, but it never lasted long. I’d feel a strong hand grasp my skinny upper arm, and I got pulled, none too gently, into the work room. Two things happened next. First came the scolding followed by me being marched to the side of a large refrigerator. “Now you stand there and think about what you did,” Uncle Paul said. He turned me so that my back was against the fridge, and my face far away from that doorway that lured me like a siren of the sea so many times.

Years later, when he had his own children, I overheard him tell my mother how sorry he was that he’d made me stand by myself as punishment for so long. “She was just a little girl,” he said, “and the time must have been an eternity for her.”  I spent the half-hour watching all the activity around me--Grandma and my mother rolling dough or slicing apples for pies, and Uncle Paul hoisting huge tins of flour and sugar for them, and then he’d punch down the bread dough and begin shaping it into loaves. I loved the yeasty aroma that drifted into every corner of that big workroom. Sometimes I’d be able to see deliverymen come through the back door toting everything from lard to flour to butter to sugar, milk and eggs. Grandma got extra rations for her business during those WWII years. I learned that making a business successful meant hard work and being careful with money.

Occasionally, Adeline came to the workroom to get more baked goods for the cases. She didn’t dare talk to me during punishment time, nor could I speak to her. But as she walked by, arms loaded with bread and cinnamon rolls, she’d make a funny face and wink at me. I clapped my hands over my mouth so I wouldn’t giggle. I learned that punishment was serious business, but it didn’t mean the end of the world. Life would go on when I’d served my sentence.

When Uncle Paul gave me the signal, I dragged a flour tin close to Grandma and climbed onto it so I could watch at the high table where she worked. If she had nuts ready to use, I asked her, “Just one nut for me, Grandma?” and she’d hand me one beautiful, big pecan. I had my one pecan every day of the week. If she was making fancy tea sandwiches for a catering order, I’d ask, “Just one for me, Grandma?” and she’d hand me one without a word. I learned that even a little bit of something you crave is satisfying.

The mornings in Grandma’s bakery during the early 1940’s remain a clear memory. I can see my grandma in her Mother Hubbard apron, hair braided and wrapped atop her head like a crown. Her rimless glasses steamed often from the heat of the ovens and hot water in the deep sink. I can see my mother, young with a colored ribbon woven into her curls, apron wrapped around her cotton dress darting me warning looks if I ventured near the doorway to the front room. I see my Uncle Paul with his thick, blond hair swept straight back from his forehead, a large flour sack towel tied around his waist for an apron. At night, he performed as a magician wearing a tuxedo, but I never got see him except in photos. I see Adeline running back and forth from the front to the workroom, curls bouncing, with always a word or a pat for me.

It’s when I have a cup of tea now that these memories come floating back to me. Once again, I am at the oil-cloth covered table with Grandma pouring my English tea and handing me a sweet roll which smells of yeast and cinnamon. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Finding My Mother--A Remembrance

Mother's Day is this next Sunday. Those who have mothers still living honor them in various ways. Families gather to spend the day. People who have lost their mothers sometimes find it a painful day that brings more sadness than joy. One way to make it a happier day is to dwell on the good memories, the things which you will never forget about your mom. Even those times when she scolded and punished you--all for your own good, of course.

You might devote a section of your Memory Book/Family Stories collection to your mother and next month your father. After all, they were a pretty big part of your life. Even if your mom is still living, you can begin writing those special stories about the things you love about her, the funny times, the periods when you felt like she was your #1 cheerleader. You might consider doing it now and presenting her with what you've written. It would mean more to her than the biggest bottle of French perfume in the land. 

I'm going to post a few of my own Mother's Day memoir stories on the blog today and the next two. Maybe reading them will serve as a trigger or writing prompt for you. The first one is about the feeling of losing the mother you love and how you can keep her with you. It was written about 10 years ago. If you would like to hear me reading this personal essay, click here.

Finding My Mother

The year is 1943, and I am four years old. The Woolworth Five and Dime in our neighborhood has a creaky wooden floor and smells like penny candy, sickeningly sweet. I walk up one aisle and down another, heart beating fast, until a clerk leans down. “Do you need help, honey?”
My lip quivers, and I voice my fear. “Where is my mama? I can’t find her.” Like magic, my mother appears at the end of the aisle, her steps hurried, my baby brother in her arms. Relief washes over me when we are reunited. She reassures me with simple words. “Don’t worry. I’d never leave you.” But I stay close to her the rest of the day.
War rages in Europe and Asia, but I am oblivious to that situation. My world revolves around my young and pretty mother. She provides everything a four-year-old requires. She reads to me, hears my bedtime prayer, and coaxes me to eat. I develop a sense of humor because she makes laughter a part of our everyday life.
Fast forward sixty-one years, and I have lost my mother again. I can’t find her, even though I know where she lives. She is eighty-six and resides far from me in a nursing home in North Carolina, but the mother I know and love is gone.
Macular degeneration denies her the pleasure of reading. In years past, she devoured novels, fit newspapers and magazines into her daily routine. She celebrated the release of every new John Grisham book.
Physical ailments curtail her activities, and depression erases the keen sense of humor that marked her character until very recently. The weekly letters stop when she loses the ability to pick up a pen and put words on paper. For years, we chatted on the phone—passing on family news, discussing world events, politics, movies, books and more. Now, she refuses to have a phone in her room at the nursing home, effectively cutting herself off from those who love her. Is it because a phone is a sign of permanency? She tells my brother she will be home again as soon as she gains some strength. She knows, and we know, that possibility is unlikely, but no one is strong enough to voice that thought.
She no longer possesses the sharp wit she once displayed regularly or the ability to entertain us with stories about her childhood in an Iowa coal mining town. Mental confusion blurs her days, and her powers of concentration are vastly diminished.
Yes, I’ve lost my mama again. But I’m not four years old. I’m an adult who signed up for Medicare last month, a senior citizen who misses her mother. I pray for her daily. I don’t pray that she will be miraculously well and strong again, for I know the aging process would not allow it. Instead, I pray that she will have comfort and peace in these final years, months, or days that remain. Even so, I feel lost again, and there is no helpful Woolworth clerk to show concern. My mother does not make a magical appearance this time.

Health concerns of my own postpone a planned trip to visit Mother, but little by little I am finding her right here in my own home. My kitchen overflows with reminders. Her blue enamel roasting pan, a painted china plate, a serving bowl and more trigger memories of happy times. The other day I picked up a rolling pin while looking for something in a cupboard, and images of my mother rolling pie pastry, sugar cookies, and cinnamon rolls moved in waves through my mind and brought a smile to my face. She learned from her mother and passed the love of baking on to me. My mother will always be with me when I bake.
Her presence is strong when I skim through my recipe box where her handwriting covers dozens of recipe cards. I linger on some to keep her close a little longer. One card has a note on the top. “Mom’s Date Muffins”, a recipe passed on to her from my grandmother. They are still a favorite of mine, and when I make them, I feel my mother and also my grandmother near. On a recipe shared by my wacky, but lovable, aunt, Mother wrote “Viv’s best cookie.”
Family photographs decorate various rooms in my home, and photo albums help me relive the years when my mother played a vital part in my life. The camera caught her laughing, holding babies, traveling with my dad. Pictures taken with her treasured older brother capture the joy she found in his company. A surprise eightieth birthday party is re-lived in an album of its own. I can wander through my home and find her in these photos whenever I feel the need to be with her.
In some respects, the vibrant mother I once knew slips farther and farther away, but these reminders of the past bring her close. There’s no need to ever feel like a lost child again. On that long-ago day in Woolworth’s she told me she’d never leave me. I know now that she spoke the truth. A part of her will always be with me.


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Why Some Writers Need To Be Thieves

How often have you heard or read a writer saying that Time is the enemy? If only I had more time, I could finish my novel. If I had more time, I'd have a bigger amoutn of work published. If I had the time, I could be a great writer. We've heard it, maybe we've even made similar statements on occasion. 

Does it mean we're looking for an excuse? Or does it mean we haven't learned how to organize our time? Maybe both or perhaps neither one. People live incredibly busy lives. It's why the term multitask came into vogue. We're so busy that we end up doing two or more things at once. Chicken Soup even has a new book topic on the Multitasking Mom. 

So that's a given. We're all busy with jobs, raising kids, keeping a house, giving time to spouses and kids or grandkids. Each one of those things I listed take an enormous amount of time, so where in the world are you going to find time to write?

Steal it! If you are passionate about writing, you'll need to look for ways to nab some time for yourself like a thief in the night. Night? Now, there's a place where you can steal a bit of writing time. It means you might get to bed a little later than you'd like, or perhaps it means rolling out of bed while the moon is still up and your family is sound asleep. Think how quiet your house is after everyone else has gone to bed or when none of them has awakened yet. The perfect time to write.

Steal a little time when the kids are at preschool. You know you should probably mop the kitchen floor or vacuum the whole house while they're gone and it's peaceful. But look at that block of time you have that could be used for writing. Do the household chores later when the kids are there. Better yet, find a way they can help out, too.

Writers who are mothers keep notebook and pen handy so they can jot down story ideas or even work on a writing project while they wait in line to pick up their kids after school. They use the time in a doctor's waiting room to write. Forget those months-old magazines on the table by the sitting area there. There are other short blocks of time you can grab. Think about your day and where they might be.

When you steal time to write, it may not be hours long. At times, it might be only minutes. But those ten and fifteen minutes done on a regular basis add up. Sure, we'd all like to have hours at a time to sit down and write. If you make a living as a writer, you can justify that and rightly so. But if you are a part time writer, you may have to be a thief to have enough time to write. 

Go ahead and steal what you can without any guilt whatsoever. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

A Motto For Writers

Did the poster bring a smile to your face? How many of you were Girl Scouts? I joined a Brownie troop in second grade and moved on to the Girl Scouts staying with it through the eighth grade. Thus, this poster amused and it spoke to me, too. I learned in those early years that the Girl Scout Promise was for real, not just words that were memorized and spit out when asked. It meant something. In the same way, you can make this motto an important part of your writing life.

Look at what this girl is telling us. First she says You are a writer. That alone should give you a sense of accomplishment. Do you consider yourself a writer every day? If you've written even one story, one poem, or one essay, you are most assuredly a writer. Believe it.

Next, she tells you Write. One simple word, one direction, one thing for you to do today. She doesn't say to write two chapters in a book or 1000 words. She never tells you to finish a full story. All you need to do is write any amount.

She follows up with why you should write today. That is your task, your duty, and your honor for today. If you believe that you are a writer, then it is most certainly something you must do today.

She ends with two words. Simply write. The only way to continue to be a writer is to follow this advice.

Consider printing the poster and putting it somewhere near your desk where you write. Look at it every day. Believe what it says. It will serve you well.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Got A Story For One of These Titles?

 Chicken Soup For The Soul Think Positive 

Yesterday, I posted a call for submissions on one of the possible book topics that Chicken Soup for the Soul has in the works. Today's post will list the other titles for which the editors are seeking stories. Note the deadline dates for each one. The general rule is that the sooner you submit, the better. 

1.  Miracles  People like to read about the miracles in life, whether big or small. This book will be multi-faith.  The editors are also considering poems for this book. Deadline is July 31, 2013

2  Multitasking Moms Survival Guide They are looking for words of wisdom, lessons you may have learned and funny or embarrassing times in your life as a mother. Both stories and poems are accepted. Deadline is July 31, 2013

3.  O Canada The Wonders of Winter This one is a bit more specialized because they want Canadians to submit their stories about the cold and more that winter brings in Canada. You can be a resident of Canada or an ex-pat living elsewhere. Poems are accepted as well as stories. Deadline is June 15, 2013

4.  Overcoming Challenges  This topic covers a wide territory. Your story should be about a challenge in your life and what you did to meet it. Think small challenges or large ones, I have a feeling all will be considered. Consider financial problems, health issues and loss plus any other challenge you may have faced. Poems will also be considered. Deadline is October 31, 2013

5.  Rebooot Your Life  For this book, the editors are seeking stories that show positive changes in peoples' lives. Did you go from dull and boring to thrilling and exciting? If so, how did you do it? Be serious, funny or inspiring in what you write. Poems accepted, too. Deadline is November 30, 2013

6.  Stories About Cats  Serious or funny, this one's all about you and your cats.Stories and poems. Deadline is August 31, 2013

7.  Stories About Dogs  Same as above but the canine variety. Deadline is August 31, 2013

8.  The Dating Game  For this book, the stories should not be long-ago memories, even though I bet some of your stories of decades back would be good ones. This time, they want contemporary stories about the dating game, again they can be serious, funny, or about a total disaster of a date. Stories and poems deadline is July 15, 2013

9.  Think Positve For Kids  The book pictured at the top of this post is one that has already been published. This new book will be geared toward kids 12 and under. They want your stories that will help kids learn about making choices. The stories are meant to be ready by children, to children and discussed with adults. True anecdotes in story or poetry form are sought. Deadline is June 30, 2013

With yesterday's post on the Just Us Girls book, you have ten books looking for submissions. To read about all ten in more detail, go to the Possible Books Page. Remember to check the story guidelines carefully before actually submitting.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Chicken Soup and A Change

Is there a story here?

Chicken Soup for the Soul books are published around the world, in some 40 languages. That's how popular they are. What amazes me is that they keep coming up with new topics. A few months ago, I sent them a story for a possible book that was to be called New Friends. This morning, I was checking their Possible Books page when I noticed that the book I'd sent the story for had gone through a title change.

Now, it's being called Just Us Girls. They said that the title change was made once they saw the nature of the stories they were receiving. That's all fine except for the fact that my story does not involve only a woman friend, it includes our two husbands who also became good friends. I'm betting that will disqualify the story now that the title has been changed.

Seems a bit unfair, doesn't it? But guess what? The editors and publisher of the Chicken Soup anthology series are in charge. They make the rules. The writers who submit stories fall a whole lot farther down the ladder and have no say in the publishing end.

The editors are seeking stories that illustrate the bonds between women and their close friends. No teen or pre-teen stories, ones about women over 18. 

The deadline date for submission is May 15, 2013. Note also that, if you have already submitted a story for this book, it will still be considered and they ask that you do NOT submit the same story again. 

Between the new title and the deadline coming up so soon, you'd better get going on a story to submit in a hurry. But remember, don't dash one off and send immediately. Let it sit at least a few days before you edit and revise, then send it. You've got two weeks here, so use it. 

As for me, I'm still a bit irritated with this whole thing but maybe I can come up with a new story to send. Then again, maybe I can rewrite the story I sent and leave the boys out of it. Neither one of them knows he's in it anyway, so no harm done. Right? 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

May Brings Many Memories For This Writer

Lily of the Valley--May's Flower

May happens to be my favorite month of the year. It's my bithday month but it's also a month of rebirth and planting in the northern hemisphere. April has its ups and downs with weather, while May is generally pretty wonderful. Warm but not hot yet here in the midwest. In the northern Illinois area where I grew up, May was when the flowering trees put on their greatest show. 

Because we lived in an apartment with no yard to plant in, I satisfied my thirst for living things on my six block walk to and from school four times each day. No eating lunch at school then. I traveled the same route each day and watched the trees and bushes with tiny buds, day by day, waiting for them to burst into blossoms. One of my very favorites was a huge Snowball Bush nestled next to a large two story house. I looked forward to the show that bush put on each and every May. More than once, I considered snapping off a small branch to take home to my mother but somehow I resisted the urge. And believe me, that urge was monumental at times. Surely they wouldn't miss one little twig I'd tell myself. I'd picture handing the flowers to my mother. She'd be so happy. I had myself convinced until a black cloud passed over that picture. She'd want to know where I had gotten the beautiful offering. If I told the truth, I'd be in big trouble and if I lied, I'd probably be found out later and be in even bigger trouble. 

My friend lived in a house that had a yard and flowers. There were tulips and irises in beds along a fence. Lily of the Valley lined one side of the freestanding garage. One day, the girl's mother asked me if I'd like to take some of that sweet-smelling flower home. A thrill ran right up my spine when she asked and I quickly answered in the affirmative. She gathered a nice bouquet for me. I hurried home clutching my gift and made the three flights of stairs in record time. My mom's face lit up when she spied the flowers in my hand but in a flash, she asked me where they had come from. No problem there, I told her the truth. We had no flower vases as we rarely ever had any flowers, there was no extra money for my dad to buy flowers to bring home. Mom filled a glass with tap water and gently placed those flowers in it. They held a place of honor for days in the middle of our kitchen table. 

This is the kind of story you can write for the month of May to include in your Family Stories Memory Book.  It's just a very small part of my growing-up years, but when my grandchildren read it, they will know a little more about me and the kind of person I am/was. 

What May memories do you have? There are many special days this month. Does one of them bring back a memory. Something you may have forgotten over the years. This month we celebrate May Day (today), Mother's Day, and Memorial Day. In more recent years, we've also added Law Day (today), Armed Forces  Day, and Cinco de Mayo. Many graduations take place in May, also. Do you have a story about your graduation? A family tradition on Memorial Day? A memorable Mother's Day? 

I posted a memory piece on May at Our Echo some years ago. If you'd like to learn more about my memories of this month, including a birthday gift that made my face flame, click here.