Strong Words

I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”

“My book came out; and people began to think that topsy-turvy Louisa
would amount to something after all.”

“Some books are so familiar, that reading them is like being home again.”

“I like good strong words that mean something…”
Louisa May Alcott

This is the great Louisa May Alcott’s birthday; she was born November 29, 1832 and became one of the most beloved and successful authors of her time. Louisa, like her beloved character “Jo March,” was a tomboy who loved to race through the woods. “No boy could be my friend till I had beaten him in a race,” she once said, “and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences…” She went on nature walks with Henry David Thoreau and often visited her neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Writing proved to be an early passion for Louisa and as a child, fantastic melodramas sprang from her pen, which she and her sisters acted out for their friends with gusto. At age 15, troubled by her parents’ poverty, she stubbornly vowed: “I will do something by and by. Don’t care what, teach, sew, act, write, anything to help the family; and I’ll be rich and famous and happy before I die, see if I won’t!”

Society’s limited views of women’s work didn’t stand a chance in the face of Louisa’s determination: “…I will make a battering ram of my head and make my way through this rough and tumble world.” For years, she did just that, as a teacher, seamstress, household servant — anything she could find to earn a little money.

Enormously tenacious, she launched her career as an author by writing poetry and short stories for popular magazines. In 1854, at the age of 22, she published her first book, “Flower Fables.” When she was 35, her publisher asked Louisa if she could conjure up “a book for girls.” Her response, “Little Women.” was written from May to July 1868. Set in New England during the Civil War, it was based on her own family life.

Jo March, her one-of-a-kind heroine, is widely considered to be the first living, breathing girl to light up the pages of American literature, which was awash in idealized images of childhood. “Little Women” was an instant success and during her career, 30 books and collections of stories poured from her creative and determined pen. 

May Louisa’s imagination and persistence be an inspiration to us all as we boldly sail our own ships on a sea of strong words — and write on!

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Unexpected Findings

An inspiring story:

For 10 long years, Professor Alexander Fleming searched for ways to kill bacteria. Then one day, he was tidying up his laboratory and getting ready to leave. He stacked several dirty dishes in an antiseptic bath in Oder to clean them. But he accidentally left out one dish he had been growing bacteria on.

Meanwhile , in a laboratory below Dr. Fleming’s, a researcher was working with fungi. Borne by the air, mold drifted out of that laboratory into Fleming’s laboratory and landed right on the dish he had accidentally left out and forgotten to clean. Mold started growing on the dish.

Weeks later, Fleming returned to his laboratory and discovered the moldy dish. His years of experience and experiments enabled him to speculate that the mold that e randomly landed on this loons dish had prevented the bacteria from growing. He had the presence of mind and observation skills to recognize the significance of this unexpected finding. He had stumbled upon a substance that could kill bacteria responsible for many infectious illnesses in humans. He called it penicillin. Since that fateful day in his laboratory, his serendipitous discovery has saved millions upon millions of lives.

Unexpected findings—we’ve all experienced them as writers.

We pick up an article about a subject we’ve chosen for a story.

We read a book that gives us clues to restructuring our work.

We create a minor character who becomes a major player in our novel.

We overheard a snippet of conversation we use in our dialogue.

Oh, the joys of these happy accidents! I think of them as little gifts from the universe that show us we’re on the right track and help keep us going. We never know when these moments of serendipity—love that word!—will come our way. But if we’re open to discovery, we’re open to ideas and experiences that can transform our work.

Let’s welcome these unexpected moments. Let’s keep an eye out for them, so when they arrive, we’ll recognize them and take advantage of them as we all write on.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

As we begin our holiday, may your life be full of  joy and gratitude, now and always:

God’s World
Edna St. Vincent Millay

“O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide gray skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with color! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, world! I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known the glory of it all
But never knew I this,
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart. Lord I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year.
My soul is all but out of me — let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.”

Have a happy, peaceful holiday!

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Your Best

The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.”   Epictetus

A Stoic philosopher with a flair for living a full life in dangerous times, Epictetus knew about the value of strong, uplifting friendships. Friends are the people we choose to be around and who choose to be around us. And choosing them wisely makes wonderful sense, doesn’t it?

What a gift it is to be able to choose the people we surround ourselves with in our writing life! They’re our writing tribe, our writing buddies, our fellow travelers on the road to expressing ourselves and sharing our gifts. While our first families may be offer us many blessings, they often pose challenges when it comes to helping us take flight with our creativity. Those who think they know us the best often put us in boxes: Without even meaning to, they can sometimes seek to clip our wings when what we really want and need is to be free to fly.

But our writing buddies – they’re different: They are the people we take joy in growing along with, spending time with, and talking shop with. They’re the people we turn to for help in sharing our ideas and gifts. They’re the ones who “uplift” us and “whose presence calls forth” our best in simple, supportive ways:

They believe in us and in the work we’re doing – it matters to them.

They cushion the tough blows we take and boost our resilience.

They offer examples of perseverance and self-motivation.

They give us honest, productive feedback the pushes us forward.

They celebrate our successes, large and small, with joy and verve.

What a gift these uplifters are! Let’s be thankful for them every day as we all write on.

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Perseverance Pays

Genius is divine perseverance. Genius I cannot claim nor even extra brightness, but perseverance all can have.” Woodrow Wilson

People seldom see the halting and painful steps by which the most insignificant success is achieved.” Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher

“If you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hold on a minute longer, never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” Harriet Beecher Stowe

When Jay Winik wrote his book, “April 1865: The Month That Saved America,” his focus was on the final days of the Civil War. But during his research, he also learned a lot about how leaders face adversity and ultimately triumph over it. As he put it, “What I discovered is this most common trait among great leaders: They can repeatedly suffer failure and be undaunted by it. They adhere to their vision, and they just keep plugging away. Plugging away seems like the simplest explanation you can have, but historically, it’s very clear. People who go on to do great things in history often do them against great odds. They do it because they refuse to be defeated by the whirl and sway of events. You see it in Lincoln; you see it in Grant: you see it in Robert E. Lee.”

To wrap up his book, Winik cast his eye forward, looking at people who would shape America’s destiny over the fifty years after the Civil War. He was “shocked” by what he found: In 1865, most of these movers and shakers were failures. Mark Twain was considering moving to Hawaii and vaguely hoping he might be able to write a book. Thomas Edison had been fired from his fifth job and was working as a telegraph operator. Henry Ford’s father dismissed his son’s aspirations: “You are a tinker and you will never amount to anything.” Yet, all these dreamers and doers, despite repeated failures, found the inner drive to forge on.

Take any other period in history, and it’s more than likely that you’ll find exactly what Winik did: Most of the people who end up being successes leave behind them a long trail of what the world sees as failures. And yet these achievers and overcomers view failure differently: They see it as feedback, information they can use to improve their performance as they move forward.

What’s our takeaway from all this? Keep going! Just when you think things can’t get better, keep going —by sheer effort and perseverance, you can make them better. Wonderful news for us as we write on!

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Something Wonderful

A poster with art by Barbara Takenaga depicts a kaleidoscopic composition of yellow, white, and navy-blue dots and lines. The poem, A nap by Toi Derricotte, is featured in yellow text.
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Keep Growing

The work itself will teach you.”   Old Estonian proverb

“Satisfaction — that comes from work.”   Paul Cezanne

Sometimes what falls away frees us. Have you found that to be true? I know I have. Just this holiday weekend, buoyed and brimming with newfound energy, I began organizing my pocket-sized office. This is an ongoing project, because I’m a piler, not a filer and my piles are always piling up. Casting through one of them, I found a notebook filled with writing articles from various authors that I’d collected. Alas and alack! The notebook had been in the line of fire of a leak in my ceiling and the pages were now soggy and stuck together.

Briefly, I thought of trying to rescue them, but decided against them and reluctantly tossed them away. Part of me was aghast: All those writing advice on character, dialogue, pacing! What would I do without it? Buried somewhere in that notebook that had been buried under a pile and that I hadn’t looked at in ages, might be one idea that would change everything! Almost panicked, I considered fishing the pages out again.

Then a blast of relief swept through me. I felt free. All that advice about how other writers did their writing was more of a burden than a blessing, I realized. Sure, there might be an idea or two that might have been helpful if I had taken the time to apply them, but in the end, as that old Estonian proverb says so well: “The work itself will teach me. And you.

Admiring and trying to duplicate the writing processes of other authors can be so seductive — and so much easier than the painstaking effort of developing our own. Sometimes this quest to piece together an approach to craft gleaned from othe  can seem like chasing the Holy Grail. If we can just do this or this or that, then we’ll push ourselves to the next level. Constantly searching for the “secret” to good writing — the one that someone else knows — can keep us from cultivating our own best writing style and self. In the end, we can end up expending our own creative energy hoping to capture and bottle someone else’s.

We are all on our own writing path. Yes, there is much we can and must learn to improve our craft. There are many valuable ides and teachers who can help us. But it’s up to each of us to take what they offer and make it our own. We learn to write by writing. We find our own unique voice by listening with our inner ear. Write on!

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Carnegie Counsels

“Do the hard jobs first. The easy ones will take care of themselves.”

Dale Carnegie is widely considered to be the father of positive thinking. He believed that circumstances bow to the strength and focus of a mind unencumbered by negativity. A few words of his wisdom to guide us:

“You can conquer almost any fewer if you will only make up your mind to do so. For remember: fear doesn’t exist anywhere except in the mind.”

“We can endure disaster and tragedy, and triumph over them—if we have to. We may not think we can, but we have surprisingly strong inner resources that will see us through if we will only make us of them. We are stronger than we think.”

The world is full of interesting things to do. Don’t lead a dull life in such a thrilling world.”

“People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing.”

“Today is life—the only life you are sure of…”

“In action breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

“Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.”

Develop success from failure. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.”

“Take a chance! All life is chance. The man who goes farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare.”

“When dealing with people, remember, you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.”

“Happiness doesn’t depend on any external conditions. It is governed by our mental attitude.”

“The essence of all art is to have pleasure in giving pleasure.”

“If you want to be enthusiastic, act enthusiastic.”

Simple, but powerful words to ponder and apply as we all write on!

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“Forget Safety”

Rumi was a 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, theologian, and Sufi mystic. He’s has called described the “most popular poet” and the “best selling poet” in the United States. His work has been translated in many languages around the world. I came across an inspiring gathering of his quotes about living and writing dangerously, and wanted to share them:

“Forget safety.
Live where you fear to live.
Destroy your reputation.
Be notorious.”

“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

“Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.”

“Let yourself be drawn by the stronger pull of that which you truly love.”

“In your light I learn how to love. In your beauty, how to make poems. You dance inside my chest where no-one sees you, but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.”

“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.”

“You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?”

“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others.
Unfold your own myth.”

“What hurts you, blesses you. Darkness is your candle.”

“Everything in the universe is within you. Ask all from yourself.”

“There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled.
There is a void in your soul, ready to be filled.
You feel it, don’t you?”

May some of these words light a fire in your heart as we all write on!

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All Artists

Every child is an artist. The problem is how we remain an artist once we grow up.”
Pablo Picasso

OK, I have to admit that today was not a banner day writing-wise. No matter what my good intentions were, I just couldn’t seem to get any traction, any lift-off. At one point, I realized that some of the revisions I was making to a chapter in my YA novel were not really improvements over the earlier version and so I had to back-track. This is definitely not a good feeling. But, instead of giving myself a hard time about my lack of real forward motion, I decided to loosen up — with better results. Here’s what happened:

First, I decided to stop putzing: Once it became clear that I was just pushing words around on the page without any sparkling breakthroughs, it seemed the better part of valor just to stop doing what I was doing. It wasn’t working. This wasn’t admitting defeat, but simply accepting that my frustration wasn’t producing anything useful.

Second, I let go for a while: I looked over another chapter that was in better shape and did some fine-tuning that was much more satisfying than what I’d been working on earlier. This gave me a boost. When I’d put in a solid block of time, I wrapped it up for the day, went home and relaxed. I put my novel aside.

Third, I started playing: Later in the evening, I took a walk. It was a cloudy evening, but balmy. As I was ambling along enjoying myself, I just started playing with the opening of the chapter that was giving me a hard time. I started rewriting it in my head and came up with a much better way to have the events unfold. I let the sentences bubble up and shift around in a fluid, low-key way. Then, I sat down in a quiet spot halfway through my walk and just let this jumble I’d created in my head rearrange itself. And suddenly, out popped a fun idea — one that promises to add a light touch to my story. As soon as this fresh, juicy tidbit of a new idea, bubbled up, I felt totally confident about doing a much stronger rewrite. 

As I walked back home, lighter of heart, I realized that this new idea was hidden away among my old sentences, just waiting for me. All I needed to do was to create an opening for it to pop out. I did that by relaxing and letting go, instead of getting bent out of shape because I wasn’t having the kind of productive day I expected.

Has this every happened to you? In writing, as in life, mastering the art of letting go seems to be one of the keys to unlocking creativity. When we cling too tightly to what we’ve written or try to wrest what we want from the page, we lose the lighthearted, playfulness that so often leads to fresh phrases and insights. So let’s be artists, let’s have fun — and write on!

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