Enlivening Evening

What could be more exciting and inviting than an evening of lively theatre held outside in the relaxed setting of a small beer garden? Especially when the performance was a promising work-in-progress?

After a long bout of TV and Zoom theatre, it was wonderful to see and hear an on-stage performance by real, live actors. The occasion was a reading by a new theatre group called “without a trace” cofounded by a gifted young actress and playwright Melissa Toomey and launched in my hometown of Montclair, New Jersey.

A staged reading without a set or props, the show was designed to take advantage of the setting where it was performed. In fact, that’s one of the animating drivers behind ‘without a trace’ — the actors, play, and setting all conspire to create an in-the-moment feeling — a fleeting encounter that’s both entertaining and thought-provoking.

The debut play for this budding enterprise offered a witty, light-hearted but sharply observed glimpse into the worlds of life coaching, social media, and career angst. The two-person play bubbled and bristled with airy references to Instagram, breath work, and finding your bliss. It pitted a winsome but conniving young life coach with a hapless, confused young client who hates her job but is almost aware enough to see though the coach’s needy, greedy designs. A great combination!

Watching all this unfold and the audience’s enjoyment reminded me of just how important it is for playwrights to get their work up and “on the boards.” There’s nothing like having a chance to see and feel an audience’s reaction in real time and then hearing what worked and what didn’t during a “talk-back” session when the play is over.

How wonderful that “without a trace” debuted and is off and running! Bravo, Melissa! Inspire and write on!

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Something Wonderful

Something Told the Wild Geese
Rachel Field

Something told the wild geese
It was time to go.
Though the fields lay golden
Something whispered, — “Snow.”

Leaves were green and stirring,
  Berries, luster-glossed,
But beneath warm feathers
  Something cautioned, — “Frost.”

All the sagging orchards
  Steamed with amber spice,
But each wild breast stiffened
  At remembered ice.

Something told the wild geese
It was time to fly,–
Summer sun was on their wings,
Winter in their cry.

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The Stairs

Zig Ziglar, a legendary motivational speakers tells a story of the day he visited the Washington monument. As he and his party approached the historic landmark,he heard a guide announcing loudly that there would be a two-hour wait to ride the elevator to the top of the monument. However, with a broad smile on his face, the guide then added, “There is no one waiting to go to the top if you are willing to take the stairs.”

Love this story! At a stroke, it captures in a word picture the idea that there’s “no crowd at the top” — and it’s not crowded because most people are content to wait for elevators rather than taking the harder, route and climbing the stairs.

Climbing the stairs isn’t easy and it isn’t fast. It’s the way of the tortoise, not the hare. It’s the “road less traveled,” that Robert Frost spoke of. It’s the steady, relentless march toward a goal, a destination.

Are we willing to “take the stairs,” when it comes to our craft and our creative life? Let’s ponder for a moment what this might mean for us:

Taking the stairs shows that we are willing to do the hard work and put in the time to improve and grow.

Taking the stairs means that we are willing to tackle our writing challenges day after day, content to climb a few stairs at a time.

Taking the stairs says that we are OK when an elevator zips past us and other people seem to have it easy.

Taking the stairs gives us the chance to do the revising—the re-envisioning—that can potentially turn good into great.

Sometimes taking the elevator makes sense. But if we are willing to take the stairs, to take the slow, steady approach to doing our work, then we’ll find that when we do get to the top, it’s soul-satisfying and not that crowded, because most people are still downstairs waiting for the elevator. Write on!

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Reading Retreat

“A few weeks ago, I decided to take a reading retreat. I was going away to a remote location, cut off from the outside world, and I could look forward to two solid weeks of reading….

“Throughout those two weeks, I settled into a few hours of reading in the morning, a few hours in the afternoon, and an hour in the evening. I read about five hours a day, every day. There were no interruptions—no telephone, no e-mail, no Internet. I stopped reading when I wanted to, not when I had to.

“By the end of the first week, I felt as if I’d found the reader in myself I’d lost many years ago. The reader who wept over a passage. Who laughed out loud. Who circled back to the beginning of a book to start it all over again. Who marveled at the brilliance of a phrase, of a sentence, of a long stretch of writing.”

A reading retreat—what a fruitful plan of action for a writer! This passage is taken from Louise DeSalvo’s marvelous book, “The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity.” A gifted award-winning teacher and writer who passed away recently, her words continue to live on and inspire.

Louise created her writing retreat with a plan in mind:

She wanted to give herself time to read with attention and purpose.

She wanted to read a range of books, from classics like “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Hemingway and “Cry the Beloved Country” by Alan Paton, along with books by authors she was reading for the first time.

She didn’t write anything of her own, but she did take notes on the authors she was reading—notes on style, appreciations of their craft, and passages of their writing which she copied to admire and analyze.

Louise came away from her retreat ready and eager to “reengage” with her own writing—to take what she learned and admired and apply it.

A two-week reading retreat may not be in the cards for most of us, but what about a weekend retreat? Why not take a block of time for two days reading an author you admire—and see what happens? Write on!

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Savoring Solitude

From “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau:

“I have my horizon bounded by woods all to myself, a distant view of the railroad where it touches the pond on the one hand, and the fence which skirts the woodland road on the other. But for the most part it is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself….

“I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once. And that was a few weeks after I came to the woods…In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.”

What lovely writing! And how bold an adventure—and what an immortal classic—our boy Henry created out of a solitary stay at a small pond in the woods!

Solitude. What a precious gift it can be to us as creatives and how hard it can be to come by. We need it to bring our best to the page, to focus all our time and energy on crafting our words. And yet, the world woos us away, or tries to, with endless distractions.

In the midst of all the time-stealers we face, let’s remember how important time alone is. Like Thoreau, we need time to gather our thoughts, to mull over ideas, to be alive and attentive to the amazing world around us.

Solitude isn’t easy to find these days. But to the writer, it can be more precious than gold. Let’s seek it and savor it as we all write on!

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Work-play Approach

I once had a teacher who used to tell her students that the key to learning anything was “short and frequent intervals of study.” For some reason, I’ve always remembered her words and as time goes on they seem to make more and more sense.

I’m a big believer in taking breaks — in stepping away from intense bouts of concentration and giving my mind a chance to relax and recharge. Luckily for me — and for you, too, I hope — there’s more and more evidence that this work-play approach fosters creativity.

Many of today’s brain researchers believe that letting your mind wander and giving yourself mental “downtime” can be critical to innovation.

Washington University researchers have identified regions of the brain that are active when people’s brains are “idling” and they aren’t doing anything task-oriented. These regions are called “the default network” — and it’s been found that these areas are responsible for introspection, for imagining past and future events, and even for conjuring up alternate realities. In short, the parts of our brain that are active when we seem to be “doing nothing” are key to our creativity and ability to think about things in new ways.

“The brain’s capacity for processing is finite. When some regions are active, that means other regions are less active. When we engage in…hard-core cognitive control, where we’re really engaged in a particular task or goal, that means we’re doing less with our default network,” notes Adam Waytz, an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

All of which seems to suggest that we writers need to be especially mentally agile and to alternate periods of intense concentration with bouts of daydreaming and relaxation. Tapping those parts of the brain that fuel our creativity requires solitude, relaxation, and the ability to let our minds “zone out” and wander. Write on!

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Seeking Success

Put your heart, mind, spirit, and soul into even your smallest acts. This is the secret of success.” Swami Sivananda

There is no shortage of definitions of success, but to my mind, this one has staying power. When we put every ounce of ourselves into every aspect of our work, we are giving ourselves the best possible chance to accomplish whatever goal we’ve set for ourselves.

After all, sentences are built of words and paragraphs are built of sentences. They are the smallest units of creativity we have at our command as writers. Our smallest act may be choosing just the right word and putting it in just the right place.

When we bring our heart to our work, we forge a bond with our readers, We reach them because we are speaking to them in the language of emotion. We are connecting with them at a level that goes beyond words.

When we bring our mind’s full focus and intensity to even the smallest act of creating, we are gaining access to all our experience, all our memories, all our thoughts and ideas. What a rich storehouse!

When we infuse spirit into our creative endeavors, we lift them beyond the everyday claims and distractions of life. We tap into something deeper and truer. We offer readers something beyond plot and character. We share something rare and special.

When we put not just heart, but also soul, into what we write, we tap into something bigger than ourselves. Something enduring. Something that can give our work a timeless quality that springs beyond the page.

Heart, mind, spirit, and soul — what a powerful blend of qualities to bring to our writing! Pouring them into even the simplest expression of our craft isn’t easy, but it’s definitely worth aspiring to as we all write on.

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In Memoriam

Remember

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more, day by day,
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

Christina Rossetti

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One Rule

Write what you like; there is no other rule.” O. Henry

O. Henry, born in 1862, has his birthday this weekend. Still considered a master of the short story, he’s also known for his surprise endings—twists of fate that readers still marvel at. Some of his words of wisdom:

“It couldn’t have happened anywhere but in Little old New York.”

“The Venturer is one who keeps his eye on the hedgerows and wayside groves and meadows while he travels the road to Fortune.”

“We can’t buy one minute with cash; if we could, rich people would live longer.”

“Each of us, when our day’s work is done, must seek our ideal, whether it be love or pinochle or lobster a la Newburg, or the sweet silence of the musty bookshelves.”

“There are stories in everything. I’ve got some of my best yearns from park benches, lampposts, and newspaper stands.”

“No friendship is an accident.”

“In the Big City, a man will disappear with the suddenness and completeness of the flame of a candle that is blown out.”

“It ain’t the roads we take; it’s what’s inside of us that makes us turn out the way we do.”

“Yes, I get dry spells. Sometimes I can’t turn out a thing for three months. When one of those spells comes on I quit trying to work and go out and see something of life. You can’t write a story that’s got any life in it by sitting at a writing table and thinking. You’ve got to get out into the streets, into the crowds, talk with people, and feel the rush and throb of real life—that’s the stimulant for a story writer.”

“When one loves one’s Art no service seems too hard.”

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Self-editing tips

“I have rewritten—often several times—every word I ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” Vladimir Nabakov

Whatever writing project you are working on, at some point, hopefully soon, you are going to want to send your work out into the world. That may mean sending a short story to the editors at literary journals, self-publishing a memoir, or submitting a query letter and pages to literary agents. Whatever your goal and wherever you are now, you are going to need to self-edit your work. Your mission: To make your writing speak well for you as a professional by making it as error-free, lively, and readable as possible.

With this in mind, Ryan G. Van Cleave, a writing teacher and author of 20 books, including The Weekend Book Proposal, offers some helpful editing tips:

Use standard formatting: Visual presentation is important and there are certain conventions here that you’ll want to follow: Double space your text, use 1-inch margins, and pick a simple 12-point font, such as Times New Roman or Arial. Be sure your page numbers are clear and you include all your contact information.

Read your text aloud: This simple but powerful tip comes up again and again. When you read your work aloud, mistakes and opportunities for improvement jump out at you. Ryan suggests having an audience—a spouse, a friend, writing group member, even your dog or cat. This makes you take it more seriously.

Watch your spelling: Trusting spellcheck to catch errors is a risky business. If you intend to write “from” but type “form” instead, spell check won’t catch the error. Add in a few more typos like this and your text begins to look sloppy. Ryan suggests reading your manuscript from bottom to top, right to left. While the text won’t make sense, any spelling mistakes will jump out at you.

Avoid stage directions: In our drive to help our readers visualize what‘s happening, we often resort to clumsy “stage directions” that slow down the action. Be choosy about your details: make them full of meaning, not fillers. “Here’s one place,” notes Ryan, “where telling is more effective than showing.”

Find editing partners: Anything that improves your work before submitting it is worth doing. This may mean having a fellow writer or friend look it over and flag any problems they see. As readers, they can play a valuable role in making your work stronger.

Self editing is challenging, but it’s also rewarding. Every typo you catch, every verb you make more lively, makes your writing stronger and better. Write on!

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