Marvelous Mahoney

Three Fingers” Mahoney was a pitcher with the Chicago Cubs. Injured in an accident when he was a little boy, he lost two of the fingers on one of his hands. To compensate, he had to figure out how to hold a baseball in a unique way so that he could control it. He experimented endlessly and finally came up with a pitch that was almost impossible for batters to hit. They considered him just about unstoppable! With Mahoney’s help, the Chicago Cubs won the Pennant in 1908.

We all have some big shortcoming, some major weakness, that we struggle with in our work. Sometimes we ignore it, sometimes we defy it, sometimes we let it define us, and sometimes, we figure out a way to downplay it.

But how many of us have the creativity and chutzpah of a “Three Fingers” Mahoney? How many of us have the guts and ingenuity to turn our handicaps into strengths and then use them to become unique and unstoppable? Now that’s writing dangerously!

When I look at my own shortcomings on the writing front, they seem pretty hefty. First there’s my lack of structure and organization. Then there’s my tendency to read a lot instead of writing a lot. I also find it almost impossible to work on more than one major project at a time, which makes things move pretty slowly. And then, there’s my sheaf of unfinished projects — completion is a major issue for me. 

Frankly, looking at this list is a little dispiriting. I could use a pina colada! And yet, if I get a bit creative, I can see that each one of these less-than-stellar traits can be turned into winners. Lack of structure lets me go where my imagination takes me. Reading a lot inspires and instructs me. Working on one project at a time keeps me focused. My lack of completion — well that’s a toughy. Have to think about that one!

What virtues lurk within your vices? Let’s mine them for gold — and be unstoppable!

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“Eternal Summer”

“In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” Albert Camus

“There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart.” Celia Thaxter

As autumn arrive, we are enjoying a lovely Indian summer where I am. Still, the days grow shorter and there’s a taste of winter in the air. This year’s passing of the seasons made these two quotes seem especially apt. And in my mind, they are somehow linked.

In the midst of winter, to find an “invincible summer” within as Camus did—what a gift! We all have this place of peace, joy, and sunshine within us, I believe. It is quietly waiting for us whenever we need it. We may forget about it for a time, but it is always available.

As writers, it’s so important to remember this! In the writing life, we experience “the depth of winter” Camus speaks of in many ways. We may feel bleak about our prospects of finishing a project that we once felt fired up about. We may feel lost and confused about a revision that isn’t going smoothly. Or simply experience a bout of low energy.

Whatever form our winter takes, we can always tap into the “invincible summer” inside us. We can rest in that quiet, secure place and restore ourselves. We can leave all the distractions and the disappointments and find comfort in knowing that “this too shall pass” and that summer always follows winter.

“There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart.”

These lovely words of wisdom from Celia Thaxter also remind us that gratitude opens the door to abundance and the sunshine of summer within us. How many blessings we have to be grateful for as writers!

We have the chance to express our creativity. To share what we’ve learned. To give our readers exciting and entertaining moments of escape and reverie. To reach others through our words. To remind each other that we are not alone—that we are all connected.

When we remember all these gifts that flow from our writing, then no matter what the weather is outside our door—no matter what the circumstances we face—we can bathe in the inner sunshine of our own invincible, eternal summer. Write on!

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Something Wonderful

Autumn

The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.

Emily Dickinson

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Fruitful Fitzgerald

“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

Today, September 24, is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday. Born in 1896, he lived through some of the most tumultuous decades in American history and his writing reflected this reality. Probably best known for “The Great Gatsby,” he’s considered both a great novelist and short-story writer. Some of his words of wisdom:

“You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.”

“Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist but the ability to start over.”

“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.”

“Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues.”

“At eighteen our convictions are hills form which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”

“In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.”

“Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

“I like people and I like people to like me, but I wear my heart where God put it, on the inside.”

“Speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.”

For awhile after you quit Keats all other poetry seems to be whistling or only humming.”

“To write it, it took three months; to conceive it three minutes; to collect the data in it all my life.”

“My idea is always to reach my generation. The wise writer writes for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterwards.”

“Genius is the ability to put into effect what is on your mind.”

“The victor belongs to the spoils.”

“Action is character.”

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Productive Pruning

It took me my whole life to learn what not to play.”
Dizzy Gillespie

“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
William Strunk, Elements of Style

They say that brevity is the soul of wit and it’s often lauded as a desired literary aspiration. Not everyone agrees with this, of course: Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and Anthony Trollope spring to mind. But while they may have waxed eloquent on the page, most of the time they followed the maxim, “Make every world tell.”

When you’re in self-editing mode, Deciding how to say what you want to say more concisely yet colorfully is the name of the game. Here are a few common prose padders you’ll want to avoid:

“Creeping nouns” — William Zinnser uses this phrase to describe extra nouns that glom unto perfectly clear nouns and add nothing new in terms of meaning. Examples: “crisis situation,” “weather conditions,” and “sales event.” In each case, a simple noun like “crisis” or “weather” has been expanded into a phrase that weakens its effect.

Poor verb tenses — Strong writers choose the most direct verb tenses and use the simple present or past whenever they can, because they know that convoluted constructions slow the reader down. Examples: “They wandered around” vs. “they were wandering around” or “He said it was difficult” vs. “He said it has been difficult.”

Unnecessary adjectives — It’s easy to get lazy and use an adjective + noun construction, when a carefully vetted noun is a better choice. Examples: “a slow, casual walk” vs. “saunter” or “bottomless pit” vs. “abyss.” Make your nouns sing for their supper!

Half the fun of writing is in the editing. Making what you’ve written tighter, livelier, clearer, simpler, more colorful: This is what revision is all about. And when you come up with a sprightlier verb or noun and find yourself with a much-improved sentence — now that’s a fantastic feeling. Write on!

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Energizing Readers

Food for thought: A wonderful professor I know made a bold statement that grabbed my attention: When you pull a pot-boiler novel off the shelf and spend the weekend reading it, you’re entertained, but not enlivened: you’re exactly the same after you finish the book as you were before you read it. It’s amused you, but hasn’t affected you.

My friend and mentor Rob Gilbert says this: He doesn’t want to be entertained, he wants to be energized. He went on to talk about some performers who transmit enormous energy to their audiences: Bruce Springsteen or Stallone in the “Rocky” movies, for example.

Mmmm…All this rattled around in my head and started me thinking about energy transfer from a writing perspective. Stage performers often talk about the exchange of energy they engage in with their audiences during live shows. Is there a similar energy dynamic going on between authors and their readers? 

If a book influences you emotionally: if it impels you to think deeply, inspires and uplifts you, or has the power to disturb you — is there a transfer of energy going on? On my end, I’d have to say yes. I believe that something mysteriously potent happens every time you pick up a truly memorable and moving book. 

When reading an amazing novel — A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man springs to mind — I find that my mood is totally affected by the book’s tone and images. It’s as if I absorb the book’s emotional “climate.” Sometimes I’ll become restless or agitated, sometimes quiet and reflective, sometimes nostalgic or melancholy. If the book really hits me hard, the mood it engenders can take a long time to dissipate. 

How about you? Do you think something elemental happens when you read something really powerful? How would you describe what you experience? How does a masterful writer make this happen? Write on!

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Be Extreme!

“Be extreme. Do more than expected. Surpass yourself.” Dr. Rob Gilbert

Can taking this advice really make a difference? Can becoming more intense about our work and really stepping on the gas create results? A success I’ve just enjoyed proves that it can. Here’s what happened:

1) We all have projects sitting on our computers that we’ve poured a lot of time and energy into but never took flight and made it out into the world. I had a story called, “September 11, 1776,” that I’d written quite a while ago and that meant a lot to me. I’d had a bite from a magazine a while ago, but nothing happened. With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, I decided to pull my story out and take a look at it.

2). I revisited it and felt very strongly about it. It’s a story about what was happening in New York in September of 1776 when Washington and his Continental army fought the British. It’s a story of hope, grit, and resilience. I felt it might be uplifting and even inspiring for people to read in the midst of all the dispiriting 9/11 coverage.

3). I decided I really wanted to see it in print. It was July. I put everything else aside and focused on getting it published. I revised it and quickly sent it our to family and friends and revised again.

4). I asked for help. I canvassed friends and family for publishing referrals and leads. I asked my son Alex to draft a query for me. I put together a list of possible publications and sent the story to still more friends. I came up with a list of more than 20 candidates—everything from Oprah and History.com to Slate, Buzzfeed, and even LitHub.

5). I spent almost 2 days ferreting out email addresses. I UPSed the story to several publications and emailed queries or queries and drafts to more than 20 possible outlets.

6). Over the next few weeks, I got three responses. One was from “American Heritage”—a wonderful magazine I feel is the perfect home for my story. I sent the draft and in September the story was published along with a beautiful layout that made it come alive on the page. Here’s the story: https://www.americanheritage.com/george-washington-september-11-1776

Writing dangerously means not just taking chances creatively, it also means taking action to get our work out into the world. Write on!

For a daily dose of inspiration, check out Dr. Rob Gilbert’s podcast, The Success Hotline!

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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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