How to Write a Book

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For three years here at “Maybe someone should write that down…” we’ve been doing just that– Writing stuff down. Lately, lots of readers have been in-boxing me asking “How to Write a Book” from all this stuff.

So starting today, and continuing over the next few Fridays, we’ll be walking through that process and taking your Family History from three ring binders and flash drives, to printed and bound real deal books…without breaking the bank.

And we’ll get it up on Amazon and some other places where all those relatives who just “have to have a copy” can fork over their own cash to get one. Thus, cleverly leaving you out of the middle. And as a bonus, keeping your garage or linen closet uncluttered by a couple hundred unsold (and very expensive) copies.

Family histories are the ultimate niche book. So, unless you are writing about a historically significant (and widely interesting) ancestor, you are not going to get anywhere with the big publishing houses. Thankfully, in the age of e-books (think Kindle and Nook) and POD (Print On Demand–like ordering from Amazon) you can do this for your family without going broke…or getting left holding the back stock!

Some of you have noticed the new little badge off to the left margin here on my blog for PressBooks.Pressbooks Partner Badge

It’s not another of those Macy’s ads that pop up on my posts because I’m too cheap to pay WordPress for blocking them. PressBooks is the quiet little cousin of WordPress…it’s kinda new, and it’s a real game-changing-sleeper for the self publishers market–ie Genealogists & Family Historians–you know, people like us who love writing these stories down ;)

If you are already a WordPress blog user, you’re over half-way to your new book! This is a super simple way to make a clean, beautiful, and up to professional standards interior for your book…using a dashboard and format that you are already familiar with!

I was so stoked about PressBooks when I discovered it, I messaged them and asked if I could be an affiliate (show their badge, offer my readers who use it a discounted upgrade). I’ve been on it for a couple of months now playing with the interior of a charitable anthology I’m working on, and loading content for a workbook used for the Family History Writing workshops I do locally.

I love it.

And guess what~

You can use it for free if you would like…just like its dear cousin WordPress.

Or, you can pay a little (discounted when you use my badge..from which I get brownie points, which I will be using to make my charitable one a little cheaper for me out of pocket) and get some headache saving upgrades if you wanna go the e-book and POD route with your masterpiece. The discount makes the “upgrade” cost about $75. But hold off for now, we’ll figure out if you need the upgrade as we go along.

Oh, and if you do happen to have a fancy, notorious, well known, or remarkable relative who would be of interest to a traditional publisher, PressBooks can be used (for FREE) to put your finished content into a pdf format for simple submissions while shopping agents/editors!

I’ve even been using it to edit and sample out my NaNoWriMo Novel. You know, the quasi-memoir FICTION book Mom’s been working on. The sample chapter I leaked here last week for a couple of days was written and edited on PressBooks.

To get started, I suggest that you click on the linky-dink to the left (the one above is not live, it’s just a picture) and that will take you over to PressBooks where you can sign up for a FREE ACCOUNT. FREE, as in: doesn’t cost $$, doesn’t ask for a credit card number or any of that Monkey Business. It’s just like signing up for a free WordPress blog (like the one I use…this free one has been working great for me for years).

Set up a “GP” book title. That’s my own slang for “Guinea Pig,” like “where I experiment while no one can see it.” Generally, I have a title in mind as I work on a project and use the letters “GP” before it on the title line so I can easily identify it as my practice place. You can load in via copy and paste about anything you want…an essay, a family group chart, even photos or a blog post. Or, you can type and create new content directly on the page of your book just as if you are creating a blog post. Just be sure to use the settings to make your GP “private” until you want to set it loose into the world!

I used to call the tinker around pages my “LRs” when I was fiddling with formatting and trying out new widgets and stuff for my blog.

I have an exact duplicate of this one, set to private, and named LRmaybe. “LR” of course is short for Lab Rat…but I think Guinea Pigs are much cuter…you decide what you’d like to call your experimental book. Maybe “Experimental Book” will become a hot title!

You do not have to be 100% set on a title to start making your book! You only need a “permanent” title if you chose to upgrade at some point. THEN, and only then, are you locked into the title you choose. So play it safe at first, and stick with the freebee until you feel very confident about how you want to proceed.

Now you can futz and poke and print out and decide and re-decide on fonts, layouts and formats that are available to use…all from a VERY FAMILIAR dashboard!

So what are you waiting on? Go ahead, get over there and start playing! Next Friday we’ll talk about the other considerations that go hand in hand with the interior of your book, and who it will be written for…stuff like cover art, dpi resolutions, page sizes, ISBNs and blah blah blah. Right now, make your own “GP” or “LR” and go have some fun!

If you have any questions or specific stuff you want to see addressed, either comment below or email me via Kassie dot aka dot Mom at-sign Gmail dot com , and I can get you a direct answer or work it in to future post in the series. Either way, you know Mom is always here for you ;)

As for content, well, you’re on your own for that part! Maybe you should start writing more stuff down… 

How to Boost Blog Traffic (as a human)

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wpid-2015-04-20-17.03.57.jpg.jpegAll sorts of services offer to “Boost Blog Traffic Now!” for a price. But really? What kind of “traffic” do you get? There’s already enough black-market Viagra in my spam box to make the entire male population of Canada pop like an overfed tick!

Recently, I was reading a blog post on a craft technique (I’ve always dreamed of trying it out but know I will never get around to actually doing it), when I stumbled on to a great blog. I liked it because it was very interactive between the readers and the gal who writes it. So I took my time and poked around (besides, the craft I was reading about would likely have resulted in me buying all the supplies and then throwing them atop the pile of other unopened craft store bags). Something else caught my eye, and then “poof” somehow I landed on Readers In Wonderland.

Aside from their fun to read reviews of YA books, here’s what I found that I consider one of the best parts of their blog!

Look at this cute little blog badge:

BUTTON

Created by the founding authors of Readers in Wonderland, Bec and Alise , it encourages the simple good manners of humans communicating and expressing acknowledgement of good works to other humans. Thus making time spent on our laptops, sweating out gerunds and uploading photos, feel like a worthwhile pursuit to writers–appreciated even!

What a “crafty” idea!    Why yes, I believe you could probably call it Novel!

It’s free, and there are no exploding Canadian guys involved at all! 

And due to my innate, bossy nature (see the deep rooted psychological explanation for that by clicking above on “All About Mom”) I am driven to “gild the Lily” a bit more. So, at the bottom of the little “pledge” I tacked on my own embellishment about using “like “buttons too.

You see, the Readers in Wonderland writers use Blogspot to write with~ they don’t have “like buttons” which makes Mom a little sad for them :(

 Thanks to this new discovery, I’ll be proudly displaying this badge on my blog. I invite you to do the same. Together, we can spread a great idea all the way from Blogspot across the Sea of Happy to the Land of WordPress…where we are blessed with “like” buttons.

If you are on-board with this “Boost Blog Traffic by Being a Human” thing I’ve cooked up, I encourage you to display the badge, share the post if you’d like, and leave your blog link in the comments below

–after taking the “pledge” of course :)  Raise up your pencil holding hand–

The Pledge~

By displaying this badge on my blog, I promise to respond to the comment you make there, and to also use the “like” button on YOUR blog any time I visit–so you’ll know I stopped by, cared about what you said, and that I am dang glad that you took the time to share your story or thoughts with others in the world.

All of us, the new badge club members, would love to stop by and drop you a like and a comment in the spirit of our newly found “humanity in blog trafficking.” So be sure to let us know how to find you in the comments section below :)

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Oh, and starting Friday…it’s coming!

I’ll kick off a new series addressing the emails I’ve been getting for some time. The ones about, and generally categorized as:

“Okay Mom, I have all these cool stories written up, now how do I make them into a book?”

Stay tuned, you won’t want to miss out on this one…and comment…and like of course! Meanwhile, I’ll be working on thinking up a title for said series :)

Until then, behave, be kind, be Human and enjoy sharing this badge!

xoxo,

Mom

Heraldry and We the People, Return from Spring Break

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I originally wrote this post several years ago while the “Mom blog” was in its infancy. But after watching a good friend pridefully chose “just the right spot” to display her new, official and authentic family crest– complete with expensive frame and mat–freshly purchased while visiting a Theme-Park-Mega-Land…I thought we could all use a refresher. We Americans just don’t “get” the whole Heraldry and Flying the Family Colors thing. But boy, we sure want to participate! Here’s the real scoop, along with a bit of my own shame showing ;)   1219121525aI’m not sure, but I believe it was PT Barnum who said “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

What I am sure of is:  I am one of those suckers.

  The other day I was clearing out a drawer and ran across a family crest certificate that my husband and I had purchased many years ago.  Can you hear the Merry-go-Round music yet?  It came from a very “proper” looking shop.  I believe that it was even spelled “shoppe” ~ a spelling meant  to further endorse the authenticity of fake stuff.  But we were young and silly and newly married.  So we scraped together the $35.00 ( a pretty Royal sum for us 30+ years ago) and bought a “fully researched and authenticated, heirloom quality” piece of paper with our last name slightly misspelled on it.

Wow.  How cool is That ?

What I have learned since ( ironically for free via library books) is that we were totally duped.  A crest is only “good” for the original “owner.”  A father may have a certain design, but it does not pass down verbatim to his children.  When important families married, as was generally the plan, their crests were merged to create a new one for the identity of the newlyweds.

Maybe there was an Earl of Momenhousen who bore the crest in my drawer a bazillion years ago.  However we, the current-day Momenhousen family, have no claim to it.

  Heck at this point, I don’t even know what happened to the receipt !   I do have an excuse though…I am an American.  Almost all of us are about one inch away from obsession with “the Old Country.”  Additionally, we are also generally convinced  there is a Demi-Czar, a Baron or at least a Bergermeister in our family pedigree somewhere.

Therefore, it stands to reason that we (meaning the immediate “us”) must have claim to a heraldic shield, a family crest, or something that verifies we are from a stock above serfdom.  Thanks Mr Barnum, you have given a name to this madness~

Sucker.

The real truth is that Heraldic Design is pretty much about Art.  If you are Canadian, you may claim a crest for your lineage if you wish to go through a long and arduous process. For better or for worse,if you are looking for something cool to put up on the wall, its time to do some doodling.  Although I did some intensive research on the topic and found a few favorite books that I think are very good for being technically correct, I just recommend the use of an artsy relative.

Simply by Googling “Heraldry” or” Heraldic Design”, or” Colors in Heraldry” you can save yourself some time and money. If you are looking for good books on the subject (and you can persevere for a few months to get through one) I would recommend one of these three.  And please note, the third one is not an opening chapter, it is the title of the book:

1.  A Guide to Heraldry by Ottfried Neubecker

2.  Concise Encyclopedia  of Heraldry by Guy Cadogan Rothery

3.  The Manuel of Heraldry a Concise Description of the Several Terms Used and Containing a Dictionary of Every Designation in the Science with 350 Illustrations  by Sir Francis James Grant

If these all sound too scary, have a sit down with your clan and start brainstorming what it means to be a “Dipfenhoffper” or “Smith.”  Think up some words,symbols, and colors to use to represent You.  Maybe then craft a family logo~for your ” house”.  Remember, siblings should be allowed to represent the same ancestry with their own selection of colors, symbolism and mottoes.  Consider using a string of words that spell out your last name as a motto like the poems kids are so fond of writing out of their names .

Example (bad one, really bad one):

Bravery In The Hood Masked At Night (Bithman)

In my post titled Managing the Help(ers)” I talked a little bit about dividing this task up among different factions of the family.  It’s a great way to get everyone started with helping without driving you nuts.  And, as a bonus, if you can get everyone to create their own crest, then the cover design for their copy of the finished project will already be done.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Julie-Everhart-Fine-Art-and-Photography/161130630622523?__mref=message_bubble

Lord Levi, as rendered by my friend Julie Everhart, of Julie Everhart Fine Art and Photography

Wow, how cool is that?

It’s also as authentic as the “Heraldry” you buy in a glitzy little shop or from one of the online retailers. This is my fabulous furboy, posing as the Lord of a fictitious family who lives out their on-screen lives in a private home rented annually by their production crew.

I’d rather have this photo any day over one printed out with an ink-jet from a tourist trap! If you’d like your baby, or yourself, transformed into Napoleon or Marie Antoinette (before that whole unfortunate beheading thing) get in touch with Julie, you can have royalty “your way” as the great American (Burger) King says ;)

How to Tell A Story that Makes Sense in 10 Steps

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How the heck did we get Here?

How the heck did we get Here?

There is storytelling, and then there is telling a story that makes sense (even years into the future and long after it’s written). Sometimes as Family Historians, we find that our tales get twisted up into mazes of confusion and backtracking.

It’s frustrating. I’ve been there, and I understand completely.

At times, even while we’re writing a piece we know that it will “never do.” Unfortunately, this is how so many of us give up before we’ve ever really started. So here’s my 10-step remedy for such situations…presented of course with one of Mom’s little soul-baring stories as a side dish…

10 Steps to Writing a Good Story (that makes sense)

The first time I attended a writing workshop I was full of fire! Inside my leather satchel (yes, it’s been that long ago) I had four typed and double spaced pages of pure storytelling genius. Our samples were collected at the door by a teaching assistant, and then whisked away to the copier room to reproduce one set for each attendee.

Back then, I would guess the photocopying and stapling expense comprised about half of the $25 fee for the series.

Over the next three Thursday evenings, we were immersed in technique discussions and submission sample reviews done in alphabetical order by each author’s last name. Until my “time at the table” I was feeling really good about my little story. Dang good. But when “R” time came in the lineup, my confidence faltered. I deflated, melted, and disintegrated into a thin grimy layer of humiliated dust atop my chair.

The teacher was quite nice about “it” –the killing of my pages that is. She could have been much worse I suppose. As she wrapped up the previous story’s glowing critique and announced my piece, she fanned out the four pages, raised them above her head and proclaimed them “a perfect example of a beginner’s error.”

Oh Murder!

Apparently, in the meager 1000 words I had slavishly typed during lunch breaks on the nice IBM Selectric at work, I had wasted no paper. She briskly lead us through my beloved pages emptying out red pens as she guided us in circling large chunks of my lovely prose.

As it turned out, I had managed to write about five different story fragments in one small essay.

“Yes,” she reiterated to my classmates, “This is a perfect example of the huge mistakes a beginner makes.”

So in an effort to spare you all from making the same classic “beginner’s errors” I offer you my 10 Steps to writing a clean, clearly focused, enduring and easily understood Family History story.

 

  1. Start writing. Don’t worry about any of the above. Just think about a person or branch of the family or an event you would like to tell a story about and begin.
  2. Keep writing. Write everything you know via family lore, genealogical and historical research.
  3. Gather together all the media (photos, ephemera, source books etc) and check to see if you’ve left anything out. If you find something, add it in to this piece.
  4. Write a bit more about how you came to discover/know/guess on the details of the subject: “Old Daniel always wore striped overalls, he saved the solid denim set for Sunday Church”–per photos and stories told to me by Aunts Aida and Lily Poindexter and Uncle Les.
  5. When you simply cannot write any more about this seemingly narrow subject, get out your red pen.
  6. Begin circling small or large blocks of text that could be made bigger. Who are the other people (neighbors, the mail carrier, a teacher, the Poindexter Aunts and Uncle Les) mentioned in the story? Do they matter? Is the setting of the tale of interest on its own? Did these events take place at a newly built home or on a farm passed through generations, on a steamship or clipper crossing the Atlantic in August? Is there back-story here that needs to be added in so that years from now–when “everyone” doesn’t possess what we currently think of as common knowledge people will “get it?” Would a future reader need to do research to understand or find explanations in order for this tale to hold their attention? Perhaps the small town your relatives “traded in” no longer exists. Can you map it– if no, why not? Was it wiped out in the TVA project? What was the TVA? Was the town on the main road, and suddenly the railroad came through about a mile to the east…killing all the businesses and leaving the area rather abandoned? Is that small town now swallowed up by a larger city and only referred to on maps as a neighborhood? Was your family’s first home on American soil razed to build Slugger Stadium in Louisville (mine was!)?
  7. Don’t be intimidated. This really is the fun part. This is when you discover that you have a much larger story to tell when you may have thought otherwise. The “trick” is to dissect it in this way so that it doesn’t all get convoluted and become a “perfect example of huge mistakes that beginners make.”
  8. Now take your time. Go back to each circle of red ink. Relax. Simply tell your reader the story of that solitary snippet. Make it into a stand alone piece. Give it all the care and attention that you’ve given it’s “parent” essay.Try out steps 1-7 on this new work. Worry about weaving together the bigger story later.
  9. As a luxurious bonus, if you have a kind friend who knows little to nothing about your subject matter, ask them if you may read a completed story to them. Have them stop you anytime they have a question or have no point of reference for what or whom you are storytelling about. This info is gold…it’s just like having a reader from the future sit with you over coffee and ask you questions about the story you are telling.
  10. Since this method will work equally well with pieces you’ve already written…put them through this exercise and see if anything cries out for the red pen treatment! You may find an additional batch of stories to write adding to the richness of the work you’re doing.

Above all, enjoy your writing and storytelling. Go ahead and tell as many stories as you’d like. But make the events clear, interesting and well thought-out so your readers will stay engaged and keep turning pages and wanting more.

Maybe even throw in a photo of yourself at work on the laptop you used to write it with…imagine what a hoot that’ll be to your great grandchildren seeing dinosaurs of all types!

dino-land with Uncle Harv

dino-land with Uncle Harv

 

 

 

The Old Mare Knew the Way Home

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Image of Alabama and Market street stands circa 1912. Families who had "truck gardens" came here to sell their wares

Image of Alabama and Market street stands circa 1912. Families who had “truck gardens” came here to sell their wares

This is the perfect photo–the one I’ve waited on for many years–to help me tell one of the most heart wrenching stories in our family lore~

When one branch of my family arrived in Indianapolis, they took up the trade of “truck farming.” Truck farming meant generally anything you could grow or produce on a bit of land, and then take into the city to sell. Depending on one’s farming skills, acreage, connections–and time of year, one could buy or sell about anything from a stall along the street.

At times, beautifully crocheted lace work, wool yarns, eggs, honey, fish, baked items, seasonal produce, smoked hams, tobacco, even rags or “whittled” children’s toys were available for the asking.

The work was unceasing for these families. I would imagine that getting to Market Street and being able to stand back and take a breath seeing your stall ready for trading must have felt like a day off. The rest of the week was spent tending gardens and animals, preparing for market, the chores of family and daily living of course.

Until very recently, I never had a real photo of what the Truck Farm Market might look like. Then, by a fluke, I ran into the kindness of Darron Chadwick of the Chadwick Studios who lent me this image. When he posted the photo above to a “remember when” type of local webpage, I knew immediately what I was looking at pure gold for my storytelling.

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Grandma Marie and the Old Mare

     When I was enormously pregnant with our second child, there were some some scary moments. I remember my own grandmother, Gramcracker, looking at me as if she were watching someone else in those days. She visited more often than usual–as if she wanted to keep an extra close eye on me during that pregnancy. My husband and I had never told anyone about the near miscarriage. We didn’t want anyone else worrying.

One day in late July on the driveway as she was in her car preparing to leave, she rolled down the window to say goodbye. But instead of “goodbye” she said the oddest thing to me.

“You know, we’ve been worried about you.

You look so much like my Great Grandmother Marie. ” 

I dutifully lied, assuring her that I was fine, the baby was fine…insisting that everyone and everything was in fact “fine.”

Now, would you like to hear something a little eerie about what she said to me?

When Gramcracker said “we’ve been worried” she wasn’t speaking of her and my uncle who was her chauffeur and live-in caretaker.

Nor was she referring to conversations she’d had lately with other family members…well…not living ones.

Gramcracker was very “in-touch” as they say.

I guess I wasn’t creeped-out, because she had half raised me and I was quite accustomed to hearing such talk–I completely believed in it. Gramcracker could always see things deep beneath a surface that most folks never knew existed.

I went back into the air conditioned house, curled up on the sofa and thought to myself–

“Well crap, now she knows this pregnancy is a  fragile one, I really didn’t want to worry her.”

I never gave another thought to the second thing she’d said to me–about her Great Grandmother, Marie.

Of course I was not surprised that I looked like Grandma Marie! I looked like all the women on that side of the family.

What I didn’t account for was that special way Gramcracker saw things, most all things, in a way different from most people.

 Once Babykins was delivered, and both she and I were pronounced healthy, Gramcracker came to visit. She wanted to express her reasoning for gratitude and general feeling of relief that I’d “made it.” She very gentley unfolded the story of Grandma Marie with me as I listened, holding my perfect baby in my arms.

To this day, I wonder if what she told me about Grandma Marie accounts for my life-long tendency to panic if I feel too cold…

On Christmas Eve in 1904, Grandma Marie and Grandpa Paul were in the city with their oldest boys working at the Saturday Truck market. It was a busy day. Many vendors had purchased crates of oranges fresh off the trains coming up from the Mexican farmlands. Oranges were a favorite treat in a wealthy child’s Christmas Stocking. Business was good for everyone the day before Christmas. Even the bitter cold hadn’t slowed the sales. 

Grandma and Grandpa Paul’s younger children were home at their small farm on the fringe edge of the county. Under the care of an older sister Lizzy, the children were very busy with chores and tending the house. Late December weather is generally cruel in the Midwest. Since this year was unusually so, the children busily kept the stove stoked and frequently checked the water troughs in the barn to be sure they hadn’t frozen solid.

Around noon-time at the Market, Grandma Marie began feeling ill and looking pale. A small woman, but a hard worker, she was nearing the due date of their 8th child. While carrying this baby she seemed to get tired quicker than she had with previous pregnancies. Grandpa Paul told her to take the wagon and their reliable old mare home early. That way she could get out of the bitter cold and help Lizzy watch over the little ones. Grandpa and the sons would walk home or hitch a ride with some neighbors.

With everything arranged for the boys, her husband, and any unsold goods to get home safely, Marie finally agreed to leave early. She set off alone on the short five mile trip towards home. As she rode along the rutted and frozen stretch of the bumpy Old National Road (Route 40), she began feeling the familiar pains of labor. The intensity and quick on-set let her know there wasn’t much time. Knowing that the baby’s birth was imminent, she dropped the reigns and climbed into the back of the open wagon. She had little choice, but no worries about making it home. The horse was indeed an old and reliable mare who always found her way to the barn.

Marie didn’t make it back to the farm. She gave birth in the moving wagon to a tiny girl and instinctively tucked her under her clothes next to her warm skin; sheltering her baby from the cold.

When Lizzy and the young ones heard the mare’s familiar clip-clop coming up the frozen barn drive they were delighted the family had come home early. The children set the kettle on the wood stove and began heating up water for coffee and gathering bread and jam to tide the others over until dinner could be prepared.

After a few minutes of excitement, the children were puzzled that no one had come inside. When they peered out the back window, all they saw was the old mare standing patiently before the closed door of the barn. Her head bobbed up and down as she waited to be let in and unhitched from the empty looking wagon. There was no one else, only the driverless horse and wagon. After a few moments of trying to understand what was happening, Lizzy bundled up against the cold and approached the barn lot to investigate.

What the poor teen found was her mother, covered in blood, dead, in the back of the buckboard. On closer inspection she found the nearly frozen baby girl clinging to life on her mother’s chest. Lizzy called to the other children to run across the big field to get the neighbors. By the time the children returned with help, the baby had died too.

I sat there dumbstruck as I listened to my own Grandmother tell this story. I knew how Marie had died without hearing a medical explanation. Marie had suffered a placenta previa–the same condition that had threatened my own recent pregnancy. My Great, Great Grandmother had bled to death in that wagon–long before her body froze. She never had a chance.

Gramcracker didn’t have to tell me. I knew what had happened. The answer danced in the air, just as it had danced around me as Gramcracker watched over me through the long fretful weeks of that pregnancy.

And that was when I understood what she truly meant as she told me at the car window that I “looked” so much like her Great Grandma Marie.

Grandma Marie ~A woman who had died seven years before dear Gramcracker was born.

 The ground stayed rock hard the rest of that long winter. The temperatures and northerly winds kept everything frozen solid past Easter. The baby and Marie were covered in blankets and laid in a small shed near the barn until the earth finally give way to shovels in April. Then they were buried together, one wrapped tight against the other forever– the baby never named. Grandpa Paul never forgave himself for letting Marie out of his sight that day. He died about a year and a half later. Reportedly, he drank himself to death.    

 Now I’m the one who is so grateful, finally I got to write this story down…

*again, my heartfelt thanks to Darron Chadwick for allowing me to share this photo and thus finally feel I could share this story exactly as it needed to be told <3, what a true kindness from a stranger!

I’m so sorry. What can I do to help?

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How many times have we said this, written it on a card, spoken these words genuinely? Or conversely, been on the receiving end of these words as they are spoken to us?    What can I do to help?

While all is well with me and within my own house, at one time it was not. And now, there seems to be a startling rash of catastrophic diagnosis all around me, involving my friends, my family and others who I care deeply for.

In a departure from my norm, I am writing today about what are heart wrenching situations that are simply a part of living. There are moments when all that can be felt is helpless desperation– for those dear to us, as well as ourselves.

The year is still young but already I have attended too many funerals, heard news of too many devastating diagnosis, freak injuries, life changing illnesses and emergency surgeries. There are also instances of loss all around that are not so obvious–jobs, addictions, nasty divorces, financial devastation, ill treatment, and parental heartbreaks of every sort–both expected and unimaginable. There is, simply put, too much sadness going around. And when it’s close to us, if we can speak at all…we often say those words:

I’m so sorry. Let me know if you need anything. What can I do to help?

Let me pull up my pink soap box for a moment.When I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in 2008, I needed a lot of help. I wanted a lot of things. But I was so overwhelmed by trying to make it through the next breath without crying, I didn’t have room in my head to think of what specific things I could ask for. Don’t get me wrong, hearing the above words from family and friends was much appreciated. I felt the genuine concern behind what they were saying and I was grateful for it. But I couldn’t respond. I was burning up every neuron I owned just trying to keep going in a forward direction. I was scared to death…not so much about what could happen to me, but about how much this was hurting my family right now.

There were the crazy things that only my heart knew. Like my wish to wake up as Dorothy had without the Ruby Slippers on my feet, realizing that none of it was real at all. I longed to be a 4 year old again, wrapped in the loving arms of my dear Gramcracker, covered in dog hair, wearing all the jewelry my hands could grab with black garden dirt under my nails from playing “dig to China” under the grape arbor.  And I desperately wanted to find relief from the nagging pain I couldn’t put aside as I ached for God to answer my list of questions that all began with “Why?”

Your head does crazy stuff to you. It demands you to give it the impossible, the ridiculous and the immediate gratification of “this” being only a cruel trick of the mind…a dream…a hallucination…a mistake.

It also straps a mask across your face and listens to all of the rah-rah encouragement, clings to the assuring words on cards, and holds a stiff upper lip to not scare others around us. Those closest to us are the ones we most want to protect from the horror show inside of us. We want to spare them from knowing how scared we feel, how little we trust, and how very angry and tortured we’re feeling.

And then there is the jealousy, and the guilt for all the feelings dancing around it. The friend standing before me, holding a lasagna and a handful of posies with a greeting card hand-picked for its uplifting verse doesn’t know shit about how I feel, or how dark every corner of my being feels. In that same moment I feel badly that I had the ingratitude to even let those kind of thoughts cross through my mind. Clearly, everything that isn’t already broken within me, is upside down. What a mess. What a pitiable, hurting mess I am.

With rare exception, we have all been there, or will be one day–whether as the one wounded or the one struggling to help. I would like to offer up a list of things that I wish I would have had the sense to ask for during those dark times. This comes from what I’ve learned to do for my friends who are hurting. I have the luxury of distance from my darkness- that luxurious distance is called “survival.” And what I learned from it is that the overwhelming sense of helplessness we feel when faced with death, dying, disaster or any true midnight of the soul, can only be eased by allowing others a chance to help us.

So Here’s Mom’s List, I hope it will help you when you find yourself sincerely wanting to help, but being without direction from your loved one, friend, or neighbor. And, if you are the one in need, please help another by asking to be helped in one of these ways. It is not weakness, it is a sign of dignity and strength. To those who are on the giving end, it is not a burden to help, it is a relief knowing there really is something real to be done to ease a loved one’s suffering during a terrible time.

If you are wanting to help, here are simple things that you can do~

As my friend, let me tell you my story. This is so important!  Processing this hurtful thing helps me heal it in my heart. It helps me to make peace with, if not sense of what is going on. As a family stands next to a casket in a receiving line, they speak the story of who they loved and knew in many different pieces. Undertakers and therapists have long known that this is an important step in the grief process. This repetitive talk therapy carries the buried grief out into the air from the places we want to hide it and pretend it’s not true.

This same talking helps cancer patients, their family members, victims of violence, returning troops, displaced workers, parents fighting their child’s self inflicted harm, death, mental illness or drug addiction…the list goes on. Everyone needs an outlet for their story. You don’t have to have answers, just compassion. You shouldn’t offer up knee jerk solutions or opinions, just hear what I have to say. Fight back your urge to say things like–“Oh, you mustn’t think like that, everything will be Okay.” Because I won’t believe it, the words are trite, and I won’t feel you are honoring my pain and fear–your good intentions will be useless. After listening, then hold these things in a pact of confidence if that is what is asked for. Gossip, exaggeration, blame-placing, doomsday predictions, opining what is not yours to have an opinion on is all very cruel.

Comfort and help my Loved ones. I am sick, but they are exhausted with worry. They spend sleepless nights, hours at my bedside, double up their workload to pick up what I can no-longer do. All while trying to stay proficient at their own job, or maintain their grades and get rides to where they need to be for activities. Listen to them, and try to find ways you can ease their burden. Bring them a hospital survival bag filled with the things that can make their life less miserable as they are camped at my bedside. Shuttle my kids. Pick up their cafeteria tab for the week at school, or deliver them a weeks’ worth of lunches packed up and ready to go. Give them wake up calls. Be sure the football pants get laundered, the mail comes in from the mailbox, and the pets have food and are cared for.

Offer to “be there” by temporarily adopting one of my kids or my spouse.  This one of course goes without saying…if the wife is ill, her husband should be “adopted” by a friend who is also a husband–and vice-versa. Don’t inadvertently add to my worries! Commit to calling or texting your adopted person every day. Check in with them.Get to know them, let them tell the story of how they’re feeling--how this is for them.

Be there for them by acting as the bridge between normal and what is happening. Trust me, they don’t have a tether to the ground right now. The rug beneath their feet has been jerked out from under them too.

Don’t let them miss anything they love because the person who is usually in that role can’t be there to remind them or accompany them to the game. Go to Target after school and get science fair poster boards.  Become the official driver my daughter’s volleyball practice, pick up my carpool, take my kid to lunch on Saturday, do homework with them, take them to the mall, ask about their day.

Perhaps the hardest one~ if I have passed–help my spouse by rounding up suits for the boys to wear to my services. They grow so fast. Don’t forget shoes. Check in with the girls too, but chances are, they’re in better shape clothing-wise. And if my spouse has nothing to wear, and is in no shape to go out in public, go shopping yourself with sizes in hand and buy three or four outfits for them to try on at home. Return what doesn’t work. If your budget won’t allow this, gather a group of wardrobe helpers together to divvy up the expenditures or final cost.

Do the quiet, unseen small things, and be specific about what your plan is. Remember, I am simply not able to “ask” because filling your very loving need to help just isn’t something I have the space in my heart or head for right now.Tell me to leave the back door open on Tuesday afternoons so I can stop by to run the vacuum and do your laundry. Or let me be in charge of changing trash bags and wheeling the garbage to the curb for the next day’s pick up. Maybe offer to scoop the litter box twice a week, take the dog for a run, or put his flea and tick medicine on monthly. Bring over your son’s football team to mulch the flower beds this spring. If you’re my neighbor, snow-blow my driveway or cut my grass without saying a word. Sneak over and put a fresh planter full of seasonal annuals on my front porch.

Go to the grocery, or through your own pantry and make up a bag full of the irritating-to-run-out-of stuff for daily living. Things like paper towels, trash bags, feminine products, chap stick, dish soap, TP, sandwich bags, coffee filters, Q-Tips, a Sudoku book or anything else that can sit quietly on the front porch without spoiling until someone comes home to take it inside.

Most importantly, don’t do more than one or two of these things yourself. Work in cooperation with others. Doing too much, even when it comes from the heart, seems invasive. Doing nothing makes you feel awful and helpless like you are standing on the sidelines wringing your quite capable hands. I don’t like feeling helpless and out of control–no matter on which side of the equation I’m currently sitting.

By writing this, I guess I hope a lot of things. I hope that it will be helpful if you use it. I hope that this list can spark some ideas tailored to your own unique situation. I hope it helps you to understand needing help, but not being able to pinpoint how or where. I hope you can print it off and hand it to your friends and family when you can’t speak these words by yourself. I hope you’ll step around your pride and allow others the comforting feeling of being able to do something helpful. I hope you can hand it to a loved one and ask them to kindly circle what would help them most.

But mostly, I hope you never need to use this list

xoxo~ Mom

Best Book on How to Become a Writer

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Lots of folks are out there selling the latest and greatest (usually written by them) books on How to Become a Great Writer. 

Personally, I have nothing against promoting your own work. In today’s cyber-spaced-out-twitterpedia market, it’s just what is demanded of authors. But before all this instant gratification culture hit us, there were writers who took it slow. Who did the deed deeply and with precision. These are the ones to follow and sit quietly studying if you truly want a shot at stardom.

Of course, that’s just Mom’s opinion :). And we all know how Moms are in general when it comes to having a thought about something–right. Just blatantly, unarguably, right.

If you are interested in peering in over the shoulder of many great writers, take a look at Francine Prose’s book “Reading Like a Writer.” My review of this “rocked my world” book follows. It was originally written for my gig as a reviewer at CatholicFiction.Net for Tuscany Press. If you want to write, buy this book, dog-ear it, go in deep, savor it and don’t spare the highlighter markings! I promise it will up your game, no matter whether you’re a wannabe, a beginner or a seasoned pro!

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In her book Reading like a Writer, Francine Prose sets out to explain the art of reading and enjoying words written by some of the world’s most gifted authors. In artfully dissecting great works piece by piece, Prose succeeds without lecturing.  In Reading like a Writer she uses sample passages by literary giants to teach her readers, while simultaneously demonstrating her love for the written word. The only part of this book that nearly caused me to knock it down to four stars from the deserved five, was the passage where she tells of her passion and enjoyment of diagramming sentences! Mercifully, this errant exaltation only lasts for a scant few sentences and then Prose is back to the beautifully told stories of and about the stories we love to read.

Anyone who loves books, read books, writes them or hoards them in tall stacks should own Reading like a Writer. The 300+ pages are crafted like a tour of a well curated library.  Each point made by Prose (whose ironic last name is quite telling) unfolds before the reader as a gift. At no time does this book feel like a required text for a tiresome Lit class.  Francine Prose herself is a gifted writer. She sets out to teach appreciation of the perfection laid onto pages for readers by the greatest of the great writers and succeeds fully.

Prose begins Chapter 1 by explaining the method and joys of “Close Reading.”  This is something I have never thought of or experienced.  Like most people, I am a casual reader. I am generally not “deep.”  I tend to read at face value, simply closing the book when the last page ends. “Close Reading” totally changed my approach to pleasure reading.  I pulled a couple of my favorite books down from the bookcase to “play along” as I read on.

Chapter 2 is about “Words.”  She teaches the reader to intimately consider each word chosen for a sentence. We learn here that one by one, the writer of substance discerns each word and asks if it is meaningful, meaty, or simply acting as a place holder.  I was on fire with the idea of the power of a single word given to or taken from a sentence. Back at my bookcase, into my personal manuscripts, the same questions and word scrutiny was happening alongside Francine’s coaching.  All the way through her book, Prose introduces and then thoroughly demonstrates her method for understanding and appreciating one narrow topic after another.

We are led through such chapters as “Sentences,” “Paragraphs,” “Narration,” “Character,” “Dialogue,” “Details,” and “Gesture.”  Each part inspired another look back at my own beloved books and indeed, my own writing to make comparisons. Just as it seemed no other topic is possible to explore, Francine Prose walks right up to the lofty and learned principles of the author Chekhov in her chapter “Reading for Courage.” This chapter is one where the true God-given talent of the author is revealed between words.

While the head spins with happiness from the new enjoyment that one is able to extract from old favorites, Prose hits the reader with her personal recommendations.  This is a lengthy list of titles (117 but who is counting?) which she names as “Books to Be Read Immediately.”  A tall order?  Absolutely, considering that no fewer than five are tomes by Tolstoy.  However, being armed with these new insights imparted by Reading like a Writer I feel inspired and capable.  Those 117 books will all go on my bucket list alongside my well-worn copy of Francine Prose’s wonderful field guide to absorbing great writing!

What Samuel Johnson said so perfectly — “A writer only begins a book; a reader finishes it” — Francine Prose eloquently proves in Reading like a Writer.

When You’re Bored, Write Nothing

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Bleachers made from well worn boards at an indoor hockey rink

These boards have weathered it all over the years. Wish they could talk!

Yes, I said that. 

When boredom strikes, there just seems to be nothing sparky or interesting. So, it’s time for some Nothings.

Nothing writing is my way of resetting my brain. Maybe it’s a close cousin to Electric Shock Therapy. I’m not sure. Sometimes these exercises seem like torture, that’s for sure! So it may be a good idea to grab a sturdy stick to bite on before you try your hand at these…remember, you’ve been warned! 

The basic concept behind these creative mind games, is to do your normal thing (write) with some very abnormal restrictions in place. It’s sort of a board game for your ho-humming Muse.  Try one or all of these and see what tests you most. There are a number of them out there, but these three are my all time favorites. At times I get so frustrated by the “Nothings” my annoyance in itself is enough to relight the fire under my lethargic hiney.

Nothing I: Write a pyramid of sentences. This is an indefinate exercise. You decide when it ends. Simply start a story with a one word “sentence.” Your tale’s next sentence will be only 2 words. Guess what’s next? Yes, a 3 word     sentence. Sound easy? Give it a try. And remember, you’re writing a story     as this is going on! 

Shhh…

What the?

Who is there?

Did you hear that..

Let’s get out of here

Wait, who took  my car keys?

 

Are you an overachiever by nature? Make your pyramid story rhyme line by line!

Nothing II:  If bouncing your brain from the left to the right with counting and prose isn’t enough of a mental pickle to get your synapses firing, try the letters only brain assault. Write an essay. Title it with a word starting with the first letter of your first name. Now, the opening sentence of the piece         needs to start with a word that beginning with the next letter in the                 alphabet. Keep going from there, moving your way alphabetically through       the story until you have circled back around after writing 26 sentences.         For example, my essay would be titled with a “K” word and begin with an       “L” word, and the last sentence would start with a “J”word. 

Kicking

Lately, I’ve had a few run-ins with farm animals. Mainly cows and goats. No chickens or pigs have crossed my path. Of course there have been brushes with sheep as well….

For the overachiever faction, you can do the same exercise placing the “letter word” at the END of each of the 26 sentences.

Nothing III: Roll a pair of dice. The number that comes up is the number of                          sentences you will be writing in a paragraph.

                     Roll again for the number of paragraphs.

                     Roll one last time for the number of words you are allowed for                          each of the sentences you use. 

Give yourself bonus accolades if you can also work the number words in to each of these elements. This added challenge gives you practice with dimension for repetition, cadence and alliteration in your writing. Sounds pretty sexy doesn’t it? 

So next time you’re bored, write “Nothing” exercises. The simple little brain tricks behind them are fun, frustrating and sure to knock you back on track!

Let me know which you like best, and if you have any favorite boredom busters up your sleeve. Mom says it’s always polite to share!

It’s Not Where They’re Dead, It’s Where They’re Honored

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Where better to read Little Orphant Annie than atop his tomb from a bronze book  inscribed with the famous last lines

Where better to read Riley’s poem Little Orphant Annie than atop his tomb from a bronze book inscribed with the famous last lines

Taking kids to a cemetery for the first time can be a tricky business. I always wanted mine to visit their ancestors and loved ones, and I didn’t want them to be terrified and jumpy while they were there. I’ve always tried to put the emphasis on the grave markers as a way that we honor people, rather than a way to mark where their bodies are now.

Recently, I decided that my 1st grade granddaughter (I like to refer to her as Doll-baby) was old enough to be intro’d to leaf viewing at the graveyard with Grandmama. So, last week over her Fall Break from school, I resurrected (sorry, there are just too many terrible puns to resist on this topic) an old tradition from when her mommy was small. We loaded up the car, the dog, and ourselves and headed to the old city neighborhood surrounding Crown Hill Cemetery.

We passed through the ornate brick and iron entrance gates and drove by the Victorian era mourning station. For what seems like miles, the larger than life (haha) winged angels, obelisks, fancy tombs and little cave-like crypts are lined up in rolling winding rows. They look like randomly placed sculptures set in an outdoor gallery. The bleached white marble seemed to glow against a backdrop of red and gold maples.

Crown Hill is a big place. Covering over 550 acres, and currently just short of a quarter of a million interned, the cemetery has 25 miles of paved roads within it’s gates. With no road signs and so much to look at, it is an easy place to get lost in. To find the way to our destination (the famous “Strawberry Hill”) we follow a white line discreetly painted along one of the of narrow lanes winding through the graveyard.

The hill is the absolute best place I know of in Indianapolis for fall color viewing. It is unofficially the highest point in the city. From here, the view of the downtown skyline and all the rest of the panoramic scenery is breathtaking.  And it ls from here that Mom begins her sneaky, slipped-in-before-they-notice-what’s-happening local history lesson. Doll-baby has expected to go trekking with crazy Grandma to see the pretty fall colors at the big city cemetery.

We are really there to soak up a little poetry and culture without getting spooked.

Here, scattered across the landscaped sections lie a US President, several “Veeps” all sorts of Senators and Ambassadors, a bunch of Union Generals, athletes, pillars of industry and society, gangsters (yep, over there that’s where ol’ John Dillenger is),the man who played Uncle Remus in Disney’s movie Song of the South, and even a Gypsy King and some race car drivers. It’s really quite the assortment at rest, eternally planted here together.

James Whitcomb Riley, Booth Tarkington, Kurt Vonnegut and that “Fault in our Stars” kid Augustus Waters are all buried here in our local cemetery (well, not Augustus really, he’s just a fictional character). I, like many of the “old timers” of Central Indiana, often refer to Crown Hill Cemetery merely as “out at 38th Street” and usually call the most swanky and coveted section of Crown Hill “Strawberry Hill.”

True, we are headed up the marked lane to see the city from it’s highest point, but we are also going to visit and leave a little gift for Mr Riley. It’s a tradition whenever you scale Strawberry Hill. And though I am not creeped out by graves and burial grounds, I sure would never want to get that way by snubbing tradition!

220px-Mary_Allice_Smith, _c_1863Famous for his poem about goblins who would come and get misbehaving kids, Little Orphant Annie was a poem often read to children around Halloween– or bedtime when ill behavior warranted.

Crowning Strawberry Hill, James Whitcomb Riley’s tomb has the best spot available out of every inch available in all of the massive cemetery.

“Annie” was a real girl who worked as a housekeeper and sort of nanny to the Riley children. She is pictured here in this photo from 1885. When her father went off to fight in the Civil War, her mother had already been dead for many years. When he was killed in action, little Annie was orphaned (or “orphant” in Hoosier talk).  Her name in real life was actually Mary Alice, and the poem written about her was to be titled “Little Orphant Allie” but it was misread during typesetting and became famous instead as “Annie.”

Amazingly enough, Mary Alice wasn’t aware she was the inspiration for “Annie” for several years, or that James (or Jim as she knew him) had spent many years searching for her. He ran numerous ads in Indiana newspapers trying to find her and reconnect. In about 1915, just before his death, “Annie’s” daughter happened upon one of the advertisements and contacted him. You can read about it in Mary Allice’s obituary.

If you are unfamiliar, you can click on the poem’s title above if you’d like experience the sort of dark humor Mom was raised with. Those who are not at least partially fluent in “Hoosier” as a language will probably have a pretty tough time understanding the written words. So, for your convenience, enjoyment, and usage if you ever find yourself in need of a way to snap those pesky grandchildren in line…here’s an actual recording of Mr Riley, the old coot himself, reciting “Little Orphant Annie” around 1912.

220px-James_Whitcomb_Riley,_1913The recording is also a bit tough to understand between the accent and the poet’s age when the recording was made, and likely his general condition. It seems that JW was an enthusiastic imbiber. So maybe he sounds a little slurry because he was a little sloshed?

I do recall times in my own childhood when by chance or by well planned attack, our Grandparents would somehow end up with all 9 of us grandchildren for the weekend. Occasionally things got a bit rowdy. I have flashbacks to scenes of our Grandpa  (ol George the Methodist aka “The Dog Nab”) loudly reciting the lines of the Goblin poem in our direction. Then he would shew all of us, still white faced and breathless up the terrifying narrow stairway to our beds. In present times, this would probably be considered emotional abuse enough. However, the real abuse started when the snarling, howling gasps and whistling grunts started to waft up the steep stairwell as he slept denture-less and his snores crawled up from the master bedroom below us.

 Sweet Jesus! We were all sure goblins and werewolves roamed those hallways at night!

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We ended up having a wonderful and educational day. We gathered loose change up from the car and participated in the Riley Tomb tradition. Doll-baby thought that was really cool. Her class was always collecting soda tabs for “Riley.”

The tradition? Well it seems that although Mr Riley was widely known, well published and dearly loved by children and adults alike, he died completely broke. When the children of the city heard that their beloved spooky poem writing favorite was buried without a marker, they began coin drives until one could be purchased. Funds poured in from around the world and in 1922 the cornerstone was laid on the Riley Hospital for Children, in no small part funded by the coin drives of his young fans. Today, the Riley hospital is a beacon of hope for the sickest children from around the nation. And that’s why the tradition of leaving coins on his tomb lives on today, a hundred years after his passing. The grounds crew gather the money each day and deposit it into the Riley Children’s Fund. 

Maybe those ol Goblins did more good than they could ever know!

So Write Like It’s Your Job

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Write like it’s your job? Who’s job? Mine? Yours? Maybe it’s just L. Frank Baum’s job to entertain us all. In his short career, Baum wrote just under 60 novels, 83 short stories and a couple hundred poems. He did all this within a 25 year time span. He created new worlds, wrote about politics, women’s rights, and all kinds of socio-political topics using friendly little characters and totally manual typewriters. He foretold some pretty awesome inventions and changes in daily living while selling the heck out of all these kiddy books!

So, what keeps you from sitting before your spell-checking, no white-out needed, multiple tab opening keyboard to write down a little story about Uncle Roscoe and his prize winning Blue Tick Hound Dogs?

If you follow along on the Mom blog here, you’ll know that right now I’m deeply immersed in NaNoWriMo. If that means nothing to you, the quick description is this:

Every November for many years (about 15 I think…wiser NaNo’s please feel free to correct me) writers can commit, totally on a voluntary basis, to writing 50,000 words, over the course of 30 days, yeilding 1 rough manuscript with room for 0 excuses. It is the Hell-dive we call National Novel Writing Month–NaNoWriMo  for short. So I’m doing that!

There are of course incentives for finishing early (like having a clear path through the house when all the relatives land expecting Turkey and all the fixins on November 28th!). To “Win” the NaNo, one simply completes the aforementioned task…get 50K semi-coherant words written down within 30 days. It’s a hoot. Or a form of self flagellation :) What I have learned from writing for many years with or without participating in the fall NaNo frolic is this…

In order to be successful, all you have to do is Write Like it’s Your Job!

I know, I know~ There’s that whole “life” and responsibilities thing. Well guess what? Try explaining that one to your boss and see how many buyers you get for the excuse you’re selling! If you want to write, need to write, feel it and believe it in your bones that you were born to write…you just have to make time to write. Or else no one, not even you, will ever know the difference.

How many blank sheets of paper go wanting and wasted by those who were meant to write the next great American novel? Who but you could give Alex Haley a run for his Roots? Nobody but you has walked in your moccasins Powhatan and Pocahontas, so get on that Memoir and let your story be known! Honor your own need to tell the stories, whether fact or fiction or fantastic vision or expose by taking control and managing yourself. Be the boss, look over your shoulder, reward a good day’s work, and don’t be too quick to forgive a lackluster performance or a string of uneventful and unnecessary “personal days.”

Is it a dry day? No way to start, nothing dazzling rearing it’s head, pushing your fingers to glide swiftly with flair across the cosmic keyboard?

Tough @#$%.

I like the old saying used in retail and restaurant work:

If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean!

If your day-job is that of a switchboard operator (do they still have those?) and you are scheduled and paid to work 8-5 Monday through Friday with one hour each day for lunch, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the phone rings. If and when it does, while you are clocked in, you better be chipper, proficient and professional when you respond to the chiming bell. Your dedication to writing needs to be revered in the same manner. On a day when nothing worth noting passes through your head to your empty pages, you need to side step the urge to “lean” and busy yourself with the opportunity to “clean.”

That’s the real life, real world, school of hard knocks truth of writing for any sort of long-term project. It has to have your full attention. You have to treat yourself like an employee, set expectations,  and work full speed to get the job done.

Any day where there is just not a word to say (and yes, those are real) is a day made for cleaning. Not literal–unless you make a pigsty of your work space–but cleaning up your prose. Do some edits, spend some time with Grammarly, catch up on your correspondence with distant cousins, seek out a nice map of the home town of your pilgrim forefathers, surf the web for museum collections of clothing common to a time period you’re working on. Re-read your stories and improve your sentence structure or descriptive word usage. Sort or scan photographs, do a little more research, go out to the closest family cemetery and walk around. Take some photos of former family homes, do some research on Aunt Zelda’s flatware that’s been handed down to you.

Like finding the base of your family heritage all the way back to the Garden of Eden, writing the story is a work with endless opportunities to be fuller, richer and more rewarding. 

Even if the only shift you can manage for your job as a writer is a scant 20 minutes per day, don’t squander the time with the equivalent of break-room chatter, laziness or habitual leaning like the perpetual “ne’r do well” (look that one up some day when there’s nothing to do). Use and cherish every opportune moment to get your Genealogy stories written and make them come dancing off the page.

Time spent writing stories down for those who come next is never wasted time or work unrewarded.

By the way, did you happen to notice someone missing on the photo above? I cannot seem to find my Lion finger puppet, he’s usually right here on the desk with the others. Maybe during my next break I’ll ask the dog…wpid-2014-11-04-12.31.55.jpg.jpeg

 

Praise the Saints and Dish Up the Dirt

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wpid-img_20140825_103611.jpg There’s always a black sheep in every family.

If there isn’t…well, somebody must have scared ’em off long ago !

There was a certain aunt in my hubby’s family who was evidently removed from the planet at some point.  I stumbled upon her on an early census.  She lived at home with her parents and two brothers until she was about 20.  Then all of a sudden she is married, and widowed within about a year.  Hmmm.  His death certificate (signed by her) states his cause of death as homicide, fatal gun shot wound.  His body was claimed by his parents and I as far as I can tell, was hauled back to Tennessee.  See ya Robert !  That’s around the time that Aunt Mary walked off the face of the earth.  Poof!  Gone.

Now heaven knows, my bloodline is not Saint-laden.  I am probably descended from more than my share of bootleggers, moonshiners, batterers and hatchet murdering types than I care to claim.  A couple of them even got caught!

Honestly, one end of my gene-pool had a real “thing” for smacking others in the head with a hammer. I can’t imagine it was their fault. Maybe hammers were just laying around waiting in those days…maybe it’s what most women carried in their handbags…maybe they didn’t know how to “use your words” to settle differences. I’m not really sure, but as far as I’ve found, none of them ever seemed to have been ever proven directly fatal.

Some tales are a bit less violent, but illegal nonetheless. Like the bootlegger faction of the family who warehoused their stock on underground shelves dug into the sidewalls of the outhouse. Bathtub Gin was the (out)house specialty. When a buy order came in, one of the kids was lowered down the hole–yes, that hole–by rope to retrieve the merchandise.

I would like to think that the customers sat on the front porch  or maybe stood around on the curb chatting while their order was being filled from the “stockroom”. But, who knows, maybe they didn’t give a…

Well, you could guess where that was about to go!

So think aloud around the table today and dig up a few of your “less than suitable for Sainthood” stories. You could start by Googling some names of cousins or other “contemporaries.”   They could be more recent than you think!

Who knows what you may or may not find. But if it’s ‘juicy’…you know what Mom always says:

Maybe someone should write that down!

 

6 Things Every Writer Needs

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In a departure from my norm on family storytelling, I’ve decided to share something that I think is a pretty big deal in any sort of writing. Recently in my Writer’s Group, we brainstormed an invaluable list:

 6 Things Every Writer Needs

The beauty of this compilation is that we are a highly diverse group writing everything from CNF (Creative Non Fiction) to Poetry, to Screen Plays, to Educational Materials, Memoirs, and on and on. Our voices and styles are vastly different (some lyrical, some concise, some babbling…me) But we were able to distill our lists down to six key elements, and then to start holding each other accountable for creating our own perfect environment for productivity while honoring our chosen genre.  We meet every other week and do a check in with the group over how close we are to honoring and providing for our writerly needs. In short, this has made a huge difference for all of us!

Now a word of caution before you peruse the list…This is not open license for dilly dallying and lamenting that you simply cannot write because you’ve made no progress past numbers 1-3 (yet). The idea is to have a vision of your perfect writing situation and to mindfully work toward that as you keep chugging along with less than ideal circumstances.

Shall I pull out the JK Rowling card? She was a single mom, on welfare, who loaded the babies up in the stroller, went to the corner coffee house and started writing down this big story thing that was in her head. There was no MFA, no Macbook, no Scribner, no editor, blog platform or fan base. There were only stolen moments when the kids were lulled to sleep for their naps by fresh air and the soothing buggy ride along the bumpy sidewalk. It seems to have worked out well for her, wouldn’t you agree?

*So here it is* Pay Attention* It’s for your own good* Do it*

1. Tools  Readily usable, reliable, in good repair, comfortable tools. I waffle between the soothing sound of a pencil skipping across paper, and the ease of spellcheck on my super light weight laptop. I also cannot leave the house without my smart phone and portable full page scanner. I’m picky about my pencils too. They either have to be all black, old fashioned wood with pink eraser #2s or a Pentel 0.5 mechanical. Why? Couldn’t tell ya…they’re just comfortable and don’t annoy me when I’m writing.

2. Inspiration What starts a story out for you? Is it a conversation with a cousin? Seeing old photos? A daily prompt from a book or webpage you like? How about your journal, or the writings or possessions of a family member–an heirloom that you admire in a case, or use everyday. For some it’s a place, a date or an occasion. Others write methodically from a task list. They have a neat outline of what they want to say and can go down the list working one subject at a time and feeling a great deal of accomplishment. Some look for contests or open calls for submissions and can write inspired by the given topic. Maybe it’s something you notice on the ground, the funny title of a book, or a childhood memory. Pinpoint your inspirations and gather them up.

3.  Space Oh this is one that’s a bee in my bonnet. The beautiful red cabin above is my oasis, nestled in a meadow of wildflowers, just at the edge of the woodland, a bit disheveled..OK…there are buckets all around to catch the drips when it rains…it is my land of sweet creative repose. My mind unwinds into dazzling sentences and the prose created while there, though lightly written, is unnoticeably heavy in deeper meanings and rich detail.  Or, maybe that’s my dream sequence and this is a photo from Lady Grace (click on “red cabin” to see more of her fabulousness) that she let me borrow and drool over as I patter away on my Chromebook, from the love-seat, in my family room, with an obese Golden Retriever hogging more than his share! Yes, space is my bugaboo.  Right now some of my best writing is done on a legal pad balanced on my knee under the steering wheel as I’m headed down the highway.

A little hint here…if you’re ever behind a grey Volvo on I-65, give it room!

4.  Support I could have easily called this community, feedback or cheerleaders. Don’t cringe. I know most of us who write are rather solitary by nature. We were the kids in the family who could entertain ourselves. But let me say this–Do not try to write in a vacuum! I know it sounds like you’ll have your ideas stolen and dreams quashed, but sidestep your shyness/anxiety/fear and join some sort of group to support you as you write! It could be as simple as a local genealogy club, a critique group, or a class series on creative writing. The blogging community is a great place to look for help too. For women (sorry guys) there’s a great group I belong to called The Story Circle Network. Having fellow writers (not relatives) critique your work and help you along the way is the best thing you will ever do as a writer. Doesn’t matter what your talent or experience level is…do it!

5.  Organization and Techno Savvy  It’s just a fact of our modern lives that we are busy, connected, constantly interrupted and short on time. To be serious about writing, you have to value the writing you do. I keep print outs of all of my submitted pieces, including blog posts and guest posts I do in binders separated by what they are. Some are Chapters for my book, some are short stories and essays, I even occasionally pop out an accidental poem. I keep a note on the printed page of where they are out for review, what the status is, and what my publication rights are, and what I was paid for it/ when it was rejected.  I have a big wall calendar too where I note submission deadlines and when mine was sent and how (electronic or mailed). But most importantly, everything I write gets saved in multiple ways. I copy all the docs onto Word, Google Docs, Google Drive, Drop Box, WordPress, and onto flash drives, and of course slip a hard copy into my handy dandy 3 ring binders.

6.  Accountability  Did I hear you mumble “Ouch!”? This is perhaps the biggest one of all…accountability. There’s an old saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” and I would add that the desk drawer is loaded with the empty pages we’ve never begun writing on! Writing can be quite self directed and introverted, and because of that…easily neglected. You must make it a priority in your day (you would be amazed at what you can get done in just 10 minutes with a kitchen timer ticking at you!). Accountability is also, across the board, mandatory in every one of the other 5 needs we’ve listed. You must set goals, share them with others, and be responsible for achieving them. Otherwise, your family history, your great american novel, your spy thriller, or your weight loss cook book will just pave the road…while you burn your favorite candle, sharpen those black pencils, and listen to Pandora.

Without “Accountability” I would loll around in my red cottage moving rain buckets and thinking about redecorating instead of tackling the book I’ve been assigned to review, the approaching column deadline, or the blog post I should care about. Let’s look at that cabin again ~ sigh…0171

Yep, I’m accountable to getting that too!

 

 

 

The Writing Write Up

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wpid-2015-04-01-17.09.49.jpg.jpegDo you follow any good Writing blogs? You should if you want to “Up” your writing skills. And, really, who doesn’t want to become a better, faster, stronger, Six Million Dollar Man-type writer?

I like to mix things up a bit to learn new stuff from various points of view–yes including “Point of View” how-to’s. So today I’m sharing my list of favs…read on and then click through, you may learn something cool!

I follow Kristin Lamb’s blog and love that she offers long, interesting, relevant posts infrequently. In her latest post she discusses exactly why I feel this way. Why? Because if I’m following a blogger and they jam up my Reader or my Inbox with post after post…I’ll unsubscribe or un-follow. I can’t read everything, nor do I want to, so I try to choose only the best. I need a little “me” time to get my stuff done…not to just sit around and read about how I could be doing better…instead of doing it.Also, if you’re constantly trying to cyber-shame me into buying what you’re peddling (a book, coaching, editing, blah blah blah) I don’t really feel the need to be badgered.

That’s what my kids are for…and they are all certifiable ninja-level black belts when it comes to irritating Mom.

Another one I like quite a bit (maybe because there are little themes daily and I can pick and choose which ones I’m in the mood to look at) is Ryan Lanz’s blog “A Writer’s Path.”   I especially enjoy his Under the Microscope series where he does an intensive critique of a writer’s volunteered sample. Lots of good stuff comes up on that weekly feature. He’s also talented at rooting out good little nuggets in the inspirational quotes field!

Rachelle Gardner usually has something interesting to say when she says it. Another infrequent blogger, her site is a treasure trove of info. Use the search box and you’ll find she’s written about nearly any topic you want some info on when it comes to the “P” word. Yes, publishing. She’s a literary agent and quite generous with her knowledge and guidance.

Also, some of her followers leave great comments. Be prepared though, a handful seem to enjoy using the comment box as a sort of Agent Audition space…a little cheeky if you ask me ;) 

The last two, are certainly not the least. I always enjoy what Sue Bahr has to say on her blog as she takes us all along questioning the universe, shaking the pudding out of lazy muses and writing really, really good YA stories (and allowing us to peek over her shoulder as she does it).

And I am overjoyed and amazed to have found the easy-to-understand tutorials and tips put up by David Pasillas on iPhone Photographer. I don’t have an iPhone–I’m an Android person, but so much of the stuff crosses over, I’ve learned oodles about taking pix with my phone for my own family history writing AND my blog.

By the way…No one on this list knew this post was coming. I just wanted to share some of my very favs with all of you. You are all so generous in sharing with me :)

Happy Easter / Passover

Oh! And Please feel free to share a favorite or two of your own in the comments below…I’m always looking for something good to read / learn/ obsess over :)

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