Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Putting the Quotation Marks Around "Failure," by Chris Tebbetts

I once read an interview with Judy Blume, where she talked about the perpetual dissatisfaction she felt--and allowed herself--over the course of her early and mid-career. First came the standard form rejection letters, she said, and it made her wish for (and work for) some kind of personal note or encouragement from an editor. When those started coming, she started hoping for an acceptance and publication. As her first books rolled out, and sold at whatever level they sold, she started hoping for a bestseller, or maybe an award or two. Always, she said, it was about using whatever she'd accomplished not just as a source of satisfaction, but as a launchpad for wherever it might take her next, until eventually she became the fixture she is in the kid lit universe. 

Certainly we can torture ourselves with everything we aren’t getting done, or haven’t yet accomplished—but I also think there’s a way in which we can over-characterize those feelings and thoughts as unhelpful, unhealthy, and something to get past. In the context of what Blume had to say about it, I’m not sure I agree. Sometimes, a sense of dissatisfaction is gas in the tank, if we let it be.

This doesn’t completely align with the month’s topic, Famous Failures, but it has gotten me thinking about the ways in which writing itself, as well as navigating a career in the business, includes an element of always wanting better, and by extension, never quite getting where we want to be, creatively, professionally, or otherwise. I think the illusion is in the way we associate those thoughts as symptoms of failure. Because, as I know cognitively, if not always in my heart and my gut, if I'm not striving, I'm not evolving. And if there was a soundbite of a revelation for me in 2019 it was this: discomfort is part of evolution. 

So here’s to loving the work in 2020 and beyond, warts and all. I’ll end my last post of the decade with one of my very favorite quotes about the creative process. It comes from Ann Patchett in her essay, The Getaway Car, and it goes like this: 

    “Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time.
"Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers.

    “Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.”  (Ann Patchett, from The Getaway Car) 

Happy 2020, everyone! 

Failing Forward (Holly Schindler)

I failed last Sunday. I did not hit my word count goal. In fact, I didn't write any words at all. I did not answer emails or texts. 

I did not do an ounce of "work."

Instead, I curled up on the couch with my puppy and a book I've been meaning to get to. A book I've started and restarted.

This time, I actually made it past the first chapter.

And the thing is, as I read, I started inevitably thinking about my WIP--the one I wasn't writing. I was thinking about this author's techniques and my own plot holes.

I still didn't write anything. I kept reading.

I paused for a nice meal. I turned on a movie. I picked up the book again.

And once more, I was suddenly thinking about my WIP.

I went to bed thinking about it.

I spent most of the day today plotting. Not writing chapters. Just brainstorming. Because that book made me question what I'd been doing. It made me think of my own work in a new way.

Had I not failed last Sunday, had I plowed ahead and put another chapter or two down, I would be no closer to a solid final draft--because I'd also been well aware, for a few days, that my WIP wasn't quite working.

So I'm making a point of keeping this going. Failing every single Sunday all the way through 2020. Taking a moment to think and question and not just rush ahead.

And letting myself find new direction in it.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

I Have the Right, You Have the Right, We All Have the Right....

By Charlotte Bennardo

"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home -- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. [...] Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."
Eleanor Roosevelt

Photo courtesy Min An, Pexels


Human Rights Day was created by the United Nations on Dec 10, 1948, 71 years ago. It is described as "A UN campaign that calls for people to know and push for their rights no matter where they are."

We have our rights here, right?

Well, actually not all of us. When children are bullied or abused, when people of various cultures, religions, ethnicities, or gender are abused, discriminated against, or denied the opportunities and freedoms many of us have and mostly take for granted, their rights are trampled on. It's not just a problem in far away, third world countries, but everywhere. Like Eleanor Roosevelt stated, these rights have to sacrosanct within each of us- in our homes, workplaces, jobs, schools, churches, communities, etc. so that we promote it in all we do. In 2019, the theme was Youth standing up for human rights. As it says on the United Nations website,

"Young people have always been major drivers of political, economic and social transformation. They are at the forefront of grassroots mobilizations for positive change and bring fresh ideas and solutions for a better world."

And because we are writers here on Smack Dab, and books are our thing, here are some books on the subject of human rights that might interest young readers:

We Are All Born Free, by Amnesty International

The First Lady Who fought For Human Rights, Biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, by Baby Professor

James and the Fireburn: An Anti-bullying and Human Rights Story Inspired by Caribbean History, by Angela Golden Bryan

Our Rights: How Kids Are Changing the World, by Janet Wilson

Nelson Mandela: World Leader for Human Rights, by Matt Doeden

Global Issues: Human Rights, by National Geographic Learning

The Surprising Adventures of Balthazar (Peace, Justice, Human Rights and Freedom in Latin America), by Claudio Orrego Vicuna

Universal Declaration of Human rights: An Adaptation for Children, by Ruth Rocha and Otavio Roth

My Little Book of Big Freedoms: The Human Rights Act in Pictures, by Chris Riddell and Amnesty International

Kindness Starts With You, by Jacqueline Stagg

Mine and Yours: Human Rights for Kids, by Joy Berry

I Can Do Hard Things: Mindful Affirmations for Kids, by Gabi Garcia and Charity Russell

I Know My Rights: A Children's Guide to the Bill of Rights and Individual Liberty, by Rory Margraf and Andrea Mironiuc

These are just a few of many books on the subject. To learn more about this special day, check out the history, creators, and goals of Human Rights Day on the United Nations website here: https://www.un.org/en/observances/human-rights-day

Everybody Loves My Dad and with Good Reason

“When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh. So you become the hero, rather than the victim of the joke." --Nora Ephron

Don't you just love Nora Ephron? She's so right about the power of storytelling and how it allows you to take an embarrassing moment and turn it into a hilarious story.

My middle grade novel Tig Ripley was inspired by a failure my dad experienced in the 1960s. Daddy was in a band called The Orbits (perfect 60s band name, no?); he was the drummer and the band's leader, perhaps because he was the only one who had a van that could transport the band and their equipment to gigs. (At least that's the way he tells it--he's got a joke for everything.)

Daddy sang harmony on all the songs. At one point, he told the guys he'd like to sing lead on the song "Party Doll."

The first time he sang the song at a gig, Daddy noticed that the audience all seemed to have to use the bathroom at the same time. And he noticed that they never came back.

"Was it my singing?" Daddy asked the other Orbits. They told him the hard truth that yes, it was.

"Well, why didn't y'all tell me I can't sing lead?"

"We needed your van," they replied.

Every time Daddy tells this story, it brings down the house. He may have been embarrassed for a day or two, but that moment in his life has provided him with storytelling gold that's lasted for decades. He lights up a room whenever he tells it. It's such a great story that I had to use it in my novel about girls in a rock band.

By sharing this charming anecdote in his remarkable, self-effacing way, my dad taught me more than just how to tell a funny story. He taught me that it's important to be able to laugh at yourself. And to be generous enough to let other people laugh along with you (and to let your kid continue to mine your material!). It reminds me not to take myself too seriously.

Failures can be great learning experiences, and they can also be hilarious if you tell the story the right way. Just ask my dad.

Ginger Rue is the author of the Aleca Zamm series from Aladdin and the Tig Ripley series from Sleeping Bear.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Imagination Reignites at Winter Solstice: Smack Dab in the Imagination: Dia Calhoun

Two days past winter solstice, when the days inch longer and the nights shorter, this is the time when imagination reignites. All that has been hidden, sleeping and growing in the dark Underland, begins to emerge. Tendrils of light shoot up like tiny seedlings poking their heads from the dark. They find light and see what the wind says.

All the creative potential inside us starts to grow. Be gentle with the shoots of your imagination. Don't judge too harshly when the first inklings of that new story, poem, painting, recipe, quilt appear. Treat them tenderly. Let them grow until they are strong enough to be coaxed, shaped. Keep listening for what they want to be. After all, they know intimately of a world, that rich dark Underland, that you only know from their arrival.

Imaginations everywhere, coming out of the dark, ask for your patience now. Let the days grow longer. Watch. Tend, Cherish this potential creative project entrusting itself to you.

If you do, what glories will flower by summer.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Failure, Fatal Flaws, and the Road to Success

Most authors, on the way to their first book, travel a road paved with plenty of rejection and failure; and even after publication, many of us continue to face failure as we figure out which way our path as a published writer takes us.

Not only is it often difficult to persevere in the midst of the failure we face, but it is also sometimes hard to remember that failure can at times be necessary for future success.

About ten years ago, I began a new manuscript and worked diligently on it for a couple years. I wrote it, revised it, got feedback from my critique group about it, polished it up, and finally sent it out into the world. I sent it to editors. I sent it to agents. And I received rejection letters from everyone. But finally, one agent responded with interest. She requested the entire manuscript, and after sending it to her, I waited with fingers and toes crossed. After several weeks, she got back to me with news I did not want to hear. Not only was her answer an ultimate "no," but the feedback she gave me about the main conflict in the plot ultimately felt like my beloved story contained an unfixable problem. I came away from the phone call believing my manuscript was fatally flawed. The story I had worked so hard on (and loved so much), in my mind, was beyond repair. So after a good cry, I did what all authors do, brushed myself off, rolled up my sleeves again, and got to work on something new.

Years later, after I had completed a few more manuscripts and managed to, not only begin working with an agent, but also to be fortunate enough to finally become a published author, I mentioned the old, fatally-flawed manuscript to my agent. Without even having read the manuscript, she very optimistically said there was likely a way to redeem the story. That was all the hope I needed to drag out that old manuscript again.

As I began working on the story, I struggled quite a bit to get past the "fatal flaws," but I kept at it and eventually found a way to breathe new life into the old characters and create a plot that worked. That manuscript is now the book When I Hit the Road, coming May 2020.

So, my not-so-fatally-flawed manuscript, that had felt like such a huge failure many years ago, is my most recent success. Seeing how the story has transformed from its original version to the book it is now honestly makes me thankful for its past failure and even makes me realize that its failure was actually a building block to its success.

Happy Reading,
Nancy J. Cavanaugh

Thursday, December 19, 2019

A Memory of A Christmas Memory

Throughout my life, books have profoundly been a part of my journey, my experiences and who I’ve become. 

One particularly special one, is Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory. First, it was so meaningful to me as a child. Now, as an adult, it continues to be in my life - its message evolving and fitting into the narrow and painful spots or moments of happiness I continue to encounter as I age. 

Each Christmas season, my mom and dad would watch or read  A Christmas Memory with me. The narrative is sparkling, simple, beautiful and never fails to strike a cord no matter how many times I read it or hear it. 

In the TV show, Capote narrates his short story to the actors. It brings that unique realism to the experience, and allows the reader to see, hear and feel the story with such intimate depth. 

My family did not have much as I was growing up. Hearing Capote’s simple traditions at the holidays, where he most treasured not the trappings and gifts but the friendship of his buddy, was always comforting to me. It continues to be. 

A Christmas Memory is still a holiday touchstone for me. It’s lines resound throughout my days all year long, though. Especially this year, 2019.

This year, my dad moved from the old farmhouse and acres and acres of field and trees where I was raised. It broke his heart to leave the rural land - where he lived alone for so long now, but was never lonely with the echoes of our childhood there, his memories of cutting wood and keeping the fire going, cooking on the wood stove in the kitchen, and the many cats and dogs - beloved such as Capote’s pup was - that passed through our doors, hearts and lives there. But it was time to downsize, to make things more simple, to prioritize health and finances. For both of us. Dad moved to town. 

I pulled out my copy of A Christmas Memory in those days of moving him and on some other level - moving our lives...forward. On. Away.

It is in these simple memories Capote writes about that I find the most ease at these busy holidays that overwhelm my mind and senses. And in 2019, the overwhelming sense of grief and loss of home and loved ones. Those simple memories like Capote’s: Trips to the trees to pick ripe nuts or fruit, a walk through a pine grove with the dog - searching for the best tree, baking in the kitchen, dancing with your friend. 

It wrenched my heart to see the land go, too. I’ve felt untethered ever since, a kite without a string or a weight to rein it in. Like Capote’s memory, mine are not grand or fancy. They are running through golden autumn fields with my dog at my side, cuddling with a cat on the porch watching the rain, the heavy snow in the trees during a long winter walk, the monarchs each summer, the ponds filling each spring, the migrating birds and all the wildlife that changed with the seasons. It’s all just memories now.

Dad reached out to me in recent weeks, reminding me that one day we’ll be there again. On that land, in those fields, “…two kites hurrying towards heaven,” as Capote said. 

“I've always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when He came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as coloured glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don't know it's getting dark. And it's been a spooky feeling. But I'll wager it never happens. I'll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are' - her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone - 'just what they've always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.” -Truman Capote

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Failures Give Us Something to Write About by Claudia Mills

I wrote my first book when I was six years old.
Although there were barely more than a dozen words in the entire text of the book itself, at the end I included several pages of advertisements for promised future publications.
I wrote the "thick book" of "100 pages" about "My life" when I was in 8th grade. Typed on a manual typewriter, with a second copy made via carbon paper, it was titled T Is For Tarzan, as my nickname in 8th grade was Tarzan (don't ask!).
The book chronicled various events in my life during that momentous year, but it was really a detailed record of my failures. I ran for class president against three boys, and not only did I lose, but when the votes were counted, it was a three-way tie, with the three boys as co-winners and me as the only loser. I challenged the fastest boy in the class to a race around the track at lunchtime, and not only did I lose, but he ran backward for the last stretch. When we had a girls-ask-boys dance, every single boy I asked turned me down. All horrible!

But the stories I wrote about these failures, with utter candor, and my best attempts at humor, made my book the sensation of the junior high school, with an actual waiting list where kids signed up to get their turn. Even decades later, a boy from high school sent me an email with the subject heading, "T Is For Too Long Since We've Talked." And - my life's biggest bragging point - one of the episodes from the book became a question on a high school reunion trivia quiz: "Who was the boy who beat Tarzan in the famous race-around-the track?"

Failures make the best stories. When I visit schools, I ask the kids, "Which makes a better story, good things or bad things?" The younger they are, the more likely they are to answer "Good things!" But the older they are, and the greater their experience as readers, the more likely they are to answer "Bad things!"

So I'm grateful for that 8th grade year of failure that gave me my first success as a writer. Yay for failure!

Monday, December 16, 2019

Failures? Let me count the ways, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

It's a lesson writers hear often -- failure is part of the journey to not failing, or hopefully to success, to getting published. I've certainly traveled that road.

I wrote three middle grade novels before my first published one. I thought they were brilliant; agents and publishers did not agree. I tried my hand at writing contemporary women's fiction. Not a good fit. I even wrote a middle grade novel after publishing two with Random House that received numerous rejections and didn't end up with a contract.

When I visit schools, I ask kids which sports or activities they do -- basketball, violin, painting -- and then ask if they made a three-point shot or played a concerto or produced a finished piece of art on their first, or even second or third try, and of course the answer is no.

Writing is no different. Despite the couple of first-time successes we all loathe to hear about, most of us take years to nurture our craft before it becomes any good. And then publishing can take years more! One of my favorite stories about writing and publishing is that The Help received 60 rejections before it was published and became a best-seller.

Hopefully, we all come to realize one day that our failures were part of the journey to get us where we are. In fact, studies have found that failing really does make us tougher, help us overcome fear, inspires creative solutions, builds character, and in many cases, urges us to try harder the next time.

So as we begin a new year and new decade, here's to failure as well as success. May you thrive from both.

Michele Weber Hurwitz's newest middle grade novel, Hello from Renn Lake, about climate change and youth activism, publishes next May from Penguin Random House/Wendy Lamb Books. micheleweberhurwitz.com

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Happy Holiday Journeys!

In December 1920 Father Christmas wrote a letter to the Tolkien home. Enclosed was a watercolor sketch. The letter began, “I heard you ask Daddy what I was like and where I lived,” he wrote to three-year-old John Tolkien, and as the family grew to four children, Father Christmas continued to write every Christmas for 23 years, until the youngest, Priscilla, was 14.

Many of his letters recount the adventures of his friend and helper the Polar Bear – in 1926 he accidentally switched on all the Northern Lights – or the goblins who attempted to steal the stored presents in 1932. In one letter Polar Bear “found a hole in the side of a hill & went inside because it was snowing”. He slid down a rocky slope, more rock fell on him, and he could not climb back: “But almost at once he smelled goblin & became interested & started to explore. Not very wise for of course goblins can’t hurt HIM but their caves are very dangerous.” The snow, the entrance to treacherous caves and the smell of goblin will be instantly familiar to readers of the book Tolkien was working on at the time, The Hobbit, the first of the adventures of Middle-earth.

A very happy Christmas! I suppose you will be hanging up your stocking just once more: I hope so for I have still a few little things for you. After this I shall have to say "goodbye", more or less: I mean, I shall not forget you. We always keep the old numbers of our old friends, and their letters; and later on we hope to come back when they are grown up and have houses of their own and children. -- J.R.R. Tolkien

May your holiday happenings  be filled with more inspirations, and less failings (unless it's pie. Even a pie less than perfect is still delicious)!

--Bobbi Miller

About the picture: The 1932 Christmas Letter (J.R.R. Tolkien) told how goblins had attempted to steal presents stored ready for Christmas. Photograph: The Tolkien Estate Ltd 1976

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Failures That Benefit a Writer

I thought I would take a different approach to this month's theme of "favorite failures" by highlighting three corporate failures that ended up benefiting those of us in the writing community. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has come to rely on these products to get us through revisions, and our personal writing failures.

1. INK JET PRINTER: When a Canon engineer rested his hot iron on  a pen by mistake, ink ejected from the pen's point moments later. This principle led to the ink jet printer we all know and love/hate.

2. While trying to create a strong adhesive, Spencer Silver - a researcher at 3M Labs - ended up with a formula weaker than what was already available. It stuck to objects but could be easily pulled away.  It wasn't until years later that a colleague spread the substance on pieces of paper to mark his place in a hymn book that the idea for this popular product was born.

3. Finally, when failure has gotten the best of us, and we just need something to make us feel better, here is one of the world's tastiest failures. Created by Ruth Wakefield, a baker at the Toll House Inn, CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES were created when Ruth ran out of baking chocolate while making a batch of cookies. So she broke sweetened chocolate into small pieces and added them to the dough. Instead of melting, they held their shape.

The rest, as they say, made history.

Our next failure may very well lead to something bigger and better.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019


by Jody Feldman

Here’s something you may not know about me. I’ve written at least 18 novels you’ve never had the chance to read. They sit in my files, in various stages of disrepair. Thanks to this month’s blog theme, I will now call them my Favorite Failures. Or maybe not.

Maybe I’ll take the Thomas Edison approach. In his quest to invent the lightbulb, he said:
“I have not failed. I've just found ten thousand ways that won't work.”

That’s better. That’s how I think about my hidden stash of stories.

I wrote most of them when I was learning how to write a novel. Of course I understood the whole concept of plot and character and setting, but I didn’t begin to comprehend all the elements and nuances that jettison writing to that publishable level and beyond. Even today, I’m still learning.

One day, perhaps, you’ll see some of these novels in your bookstores and libraries. Others, however, will remain my workbooks, my homework pages, my due diligence.

Just like organizing consultant Marie Kondo suggests we do, I thank these stories for serving their purpose. Contrary to what Marie Kondo suggests, I will not delete; they will continue to hang out in my files. Some of them are waiting to be reimagined, repurposed; waiting to bloom into their full glory. I remain hopeful for these stories.

So, in these dwindling weeks of the current year, let’s raise a glass. Here’s to using the old to invent the new. And in that spirit, let’s refuse to call our previous attempts failures but, instead, launching points to success.
L’Chaim! To life!

Sunday, December 8, 2019

My Favorite Failure? -- by Jane Kelley

Who can choose a favorite anything? This question is impossible to answer for a parent of many children or an author of many books.

Failures are just as difficult––maybe because there are more of them. I've filled dozens of journals over the years. A few of those pages have made it into print. Most haven't. A character named Meredith actually appeared in three different works-in-progress, all of which are still buried in the scrap heap.

One persistent little fellow managed to rise from the dead. His name had changed from his early life, but his outrageous behavior was the same. So was his desire to be a super hero and save the day. And now his book sits on my shelf.

Fabulous cover by Jessika von Innerebner
I first wrote about Clint McCool shortly after my debut MG novel was published. Back then, his antics were too much for me. Just like the fictional grown-ups in his life, I had no idea how to control his manic energy. In fact one editor's comment on an early version was that he exhausted her. Zing, zong, zing! Clint McCool had way too many ideas––and so did I.

Luckily a wise editor Bonnie Bader suggested that maybe 300 pages of brain flashes were a little much. She asked me to turn the middle-grade novel into a chapter book. With those limits, Clint McCool was saved. When the publisher wanted a second book, I had plenty of escapades from that longer version ready to go. In Sol Ray Man and the Freaky Flood, I even got to use another of my favorite characters--Clint McCool's former babysitter.

Illustration by Jessika von Innerebner

Clint McCool and Mrs. Brussels were lucky. I doubt that poor Meredith will be. I don't dwell on the books that might have been. And yet many of my personal disappointments have provided subtexts for my novels. Nursing those losses has forced me to think deeply about them. That made them excellent grist for my mill.

You never know when a character from a failure will spring into action and, like Clint McCool, save the day.

In fact, my current work in progress relies upon that.

Eventually, I hope, it will be my new favorite failure.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Redefining Failure

my first book in the
children's market,
released Jan. 2010
As I reflect on the past decade -- which is also my first decade in the publishing industry, as my first middle grade novel LEAVING GEE'S BEND was released January, 2010 -- I find that one of the most important things I've learned or am learning is how to redefine failure.

Like many of us creative types, I am super-sensitive to the world, and especially to failure. I don't like to fail. I don't like rejection. It can make me want to curl up in a hole and disappear.

But. These days I'm aware that a simple shift in thinking can make all the difference. Mistakes are essential to learning. And what good does it do to beat ourselves up over those mistakes? Which is why I am actively working each day to throw out the old language of "What was I thinking?" after making a mistake/experiencing failure, and shifting that to: What was I LEARNING?

my next (9th) book
in the children's market
releasing Feb. 4, 2020
Whenever I remember that mistakes and failure are part of the process, and merely stops along the way, I find my heart and mind open again to the muses. I can move forward instead of getting stuck in the muck. I can forgive myself for being an imperfect human. Side benefit: it's also helping me be more forgiving of other people's failures, too. And that is a beautiful thing indeed! Also: this theme shows up in MEET MISS FANCY (my latest book for children) as well as my next one!

Irene Latham lives on a lake in rural Alabama. Winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, she is the author of hundreds of poems and nearly twenty current and forthcoming poetry, fiction and picture books from publishers including Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Lerner, Boyd Mills/Kane. Her books have been recognized on state lists and honored by NEA, ALA, NCTE, SIBA, Junior Library Guild, Bank Street College and other organizations.

Monday, December 2, 2019

A Daily Grind I Don't Want

By Charlotte Bennardo

A number of writers I know journal. I've only been successful at it once.  I wrote about the whole tedious, unfair-unless-you're-a-white-male, degrading experience of going through both the criminal (not me, I was the victim), and the civil court system. Writing helped to keep me sane during a process that took 8 years, left me in debt (even though I 'won'), gave me an ulcer, and ultimately, convinced me that our system is really flawed (although I don't know a better alternative). I filled up one of those black and white notebooks we all used in elementary school. Once the trials and farce that is our legal system was over, and my life was my own again, I closed the book, and have never read what I wrote. I never want to read it, so I don't know why I keep it.

For me, journaling was the way I exorcised that time in my life that was just too unbearable to talk about with anyone. I should burn the book because I will never use those experiences in my writing because they are too painful and personal. So yes, I was successful, but no, I never want to do it again.

Photo courtesy of Negative Space, Pexels.

At this point, I want to write all the stories in my head, not jot down my feelings and observations that I will never revisit on the page. Oh, I know I could journal just a sentence, maybe even a single word, but I don't want to invest time in any writing that once written, will be pushed aside and forever ignored. I admire people who can do both. I probably could if I wanted, but I don't want to.

Now...what to do with all those pretty journals I bought or had given to me? I use them for story ideas; this way, I will always have a story idea to write about. So I guess that is journaling in a way, isn't it? I'm journaling my ideas. As I've written previously, I don't always have a notebook with me, so I've written ideas on my arms, on the bottom of my shoes, on napkins. That's journaling, too, right?

I guess I am a successful journaler, but I'm doing it My Way.

Do you journal?

Thursday, November 28, 2019

A Fun Assignment for Creative Writing Classes

  As a contributing editor for a magazine that shares true, first-person stories, I've learned that telling our own personal stories can be extremely difficult for one simple reason: we know too much.

When we help craft a narrative with our contributors, one of the main tasks is helping them weed through the details that just don't move the story forward. For example, once I interviewed a lady for a women's health magazine. The story was about a medical diagnosis that saved her life. It was serendipitous because she went in about a minor health issue when the doctor noticed something much more severe. During the interview, the lady spent literally twenty minutes telling me about the minor issue she went in for...and guess what? It didn't matter so much. It was a lot of detail that served no real purpose in the story.

It just goes to show that what's interesting to the people who live a particular story may not really matter to anyone else. These extra details can become a burden when fiction writers try to write a story based on true events they themselves lived.

A creative writing teacher of mine in college came up with this brilliant assignment to help us learn how to weave fiction out of fact: She had each of us write down the bare bones of a family story. Then she took those papers from us and handed them out to a random classmate. We each had to write a fictional story based on someone else's true family story.

Probably the best story I wrote in that class emerged from that assignment. It gave me enough info to have characters and a plot, but since I didn't know these characters personally, I was freed from any concerns about, say, painting Aunt Martha as a gossip or Cousin Frank as a booze hound. Maybe in real life, Cousin Frank was a tea totaler, but maybe he was a more interesting character as a drunk. Since I didn't have to worry about Uncle Frank shunning me at Thanksgiving dinner for the rest of my life, I could write the story the way I wanted to write it.

So if you're looking for a seed of an idea for fiction, try telling someone else's story--but don't feel that you have to tell it truthfully. It is fiction, after all.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Your Imagination Camera by Dia Calhoun: Smack Dab in the Imagination

"You can't depend on your eyes
 when your imagination is out of focus." 

~ Mark Twain

I love this quote for all it’s many levels of meaning. What, for example, does it mean for “imagination to be out of focus?” This surprised me because I don’t usually think of imagination as being something focused, perhaps more of a soft focus—the world peered at slantwise. Focus implies a spotlight beam of narrowed attention.Another useful word is tuned. My imagination needs to be tuned, calibrated to the creative project I’m working on, tuned in and turned on.

I have an image of a camera sitting on my shoulder as I work, or walk through the world. This is my imagination camera. Always on, its automatic focus can shift from a wide focus to a narrower focus. My imagination camera is tuned toward the creative project at hand.

What do you want to see through your Imagination Camera?

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Training to Be a Writer

Though I've always liked the idea of journal writing, I have to confess that I've never been disciplined enough to keep up a journal with any regularity. I always begin a journal writing goal with tons of gusto and enthusiasm; but then, usually after a remarkably short period time, I end up as a journal writing flunkie. But thanks to Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, I was able to make journal writing work for me.

     Cameron's book is chock-full of wonderful strategies and techniques for any artist who wants to live a more creative life. She encourages readers to do things such as "Artist Dates" and "Artist Walks" to practice living in a more creative mindset, but it's Cameron's "Morning Pages" that truly struck a chord with me. 
     The idea behind these written pages is developing the habit of simply writing about anything (or nothing) in order to tap into the creativity that's hidden, and sometimes blocked, inside us. It's a stream of consciousness-type writing, which for me, turned into an invaluable tool for training myself to be able to write on demand. 
     The Artist's Way is designed for readers to spend ten weeks working through the text as well as Cameron's suggested activities for living a more creative life. During this ten-week period, artists are encouraged to write "Morning Pages" every day.  Though called "morning" pages, this writing can be done at any time of the day, but should be done as part of a daily routine. As the journal flunkie that I am, I was not always able to keep up "Morning Pages" as regularly as I would have liked, but the few times I committed to reading Cameron's book and following its plan, I did "Morning Pages" enough so that now, writing is much more of a habit for me. When I sit down, whether it be to write notes for a new project, work on a rough draft, chip away at revisions, or do last edits on a book that's almost complete, I'm able to tap into that writing habit I cultivated while doing "Morning Pages." Even with my inability to stay true to writing every, single day, while doing The Artist's Way, the benefits of "Morning Pages" have stuck with me for years.
     So, in the traditional sense of the word, I'm not a journal keeper, but rather someone who has found a way to make journal writing work for me.

Happy Reading & Writing,

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Family Stories, Journaling: What Ties Them Together

I come from a long family line of readers. 

My grandfather was rarely seen without a book in his lap, or by his chair. Even when he left his small town to join the Army and go into World War II, he brought along no fewer than two of his favorite hardcover books. Those books carry, to this day, notes of who he was, where he was, and how the book should be returned should it be lost. They have scraps of paper with his handwriting on them - quotes and thoughts and notations. 

Both of my parents enjoyed reading from young ages. My mother especially enjoyed drawing and writing - much like her daughter would take to, as well. My father had scores of books lining nearly every room in his old farm house. While he’d never write in a book, he’d take tiny notes while he read and tuck the papers inside for later reference. It was a type of journal-keeping, really. Memories that one could go back to when it was time to revisit that book. He also was, and is, a master letter-writer. Everyone enjoys getting a letter from my father, which is full of the observations from the woods, the sky and small-town life. 

Myself, we were taught to journal in grade school. I remember resisting as I didn’t like the idea of anyone else reading private thoughts. Thus, the pages were stuck to stories about my cats and the weather. I’d later journal throughout junior high and high school. While it is cringe-worthy now, I’d like to think that all those years of writing at least somewhat kept me sharp towards my ultimate dream - writing novels. I much preferred creative writing to journals, where I could have the freedom to speak as someone else.

My sister was a good journal-writer, however. She had a true passion for poetry, and wrote it well. She could express herself with ease on her diary pages, and she was glad to share them. I envied her skill at writing down her thoughts every week, her flourishing pens and illustrations lining the margins. My sister also was a passionate reader. Her books didn’t match up on shelves like Dad and mines, but rather, they scattered in room in towering piles. Categories only she knew the system to. 

As a child, I had once asked my dad what he wanted for his birthday. He’s told me to write or draw him something. At the time, I did not like that answer. I’d wanted him to have something he truly wanted - like a candy bar or a deck of cards. I didn’t think anything could make would rival that which could be bought from a store. But I listened to him, and I illustrated and wrote a short story about our dog. After that, it became a sort of tradition. Every birthday, Father’s Day and Christmas, I would write or draw something for my dad. A painting, a story, a drawing. Thus, from the time I was about 8 to the time I am now…in my 30s, Dad has a vast collection of my words and art. 

It is a lovely family history, and a tribute of love for not only books and the written word, but also each other that exists in all these gifts, hardcover books and shelves that we all still keep. 

Happy Reading!

Monday, November 18, 2019

A Journal of Lists

My journal isn't a writing journal, or even a journal journal. It's more a collection of lists, but it's helped me through so many hard times that if my house caught on fire, it's what I would save first, after sentient beings had been rescued.

For each year (I fill one 100-page 8.5 x 4.4 narrow-ruled notebook a year), I start with a list of favorite quotations that are my mantras for the year, often using the same ones over and over again because I love them so. Here are a few:

"Look closely at the present you are constructing. It should look like the future you are dreaming."
- Alice Walker

"Facing it - always facing it - that's the way to get through." - Joseph Conrad

"Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year." - Emerson

"Be intent on the perfection of the present day." - Joseph Conrad

"Thank God I am in charge of so little." - Anne Lamott

"Nobody else is going to put it right for me/ Nobody but me is going to change my story." - Matilda: The Musical 

Next comes my best list, a month-by-month list titled "Nice Things and Accomplishments." I usually have anywhere between 3-4 to 9-10 things each month that make the list. They include things like:

Copy-edited Vera Vance, Comics Star, finished and returned
Syllabus made for my online children's lit course for Hollins University
Madi (young granddaughter) wearing underpants!
Wrote Chapter 1 of Lucy Lopez, Coding Star 
Lovely time at the Denver Festival of Stories
Joyous trip to Minneapolis for my friend Rachel's wedding
Horn Book review of Nixie Ness, Cooking Star

I tend to fret about my day-to-day sloth and think I'm accomplishing absolutely nothing. But my carefully documented list proves me wrong every time.

I keep lists of books I read, books I want to read, ways to boost my income, my biggest blessings (so easy to forget these, too), plans for decluttering my house (ooh!), tips for frugality, and most of all, MY BIGGEST MOST HORRIBLE LIFE PROBLEMS AND HOW TO SOLVE ALL OF THEM. Here I list them, facing them in all their awfulness, and then actually write down this desperate plea: "Little notebook, help!" Then in the little notebook, I write my way toward putting these problems in perspective and maybe even fixing them. Once I even created a week devoted to fixing all of them in a single sweep, which I wrote about here.

Oh, how I love making lists! Yay for lists! There is so little in life that can't be fixed with the right kind of list!

Saturday, November 16, 2019

On Becoming a Writer, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

This month we're blogging about family stories and journals, and how they relate to our writing. Like many authors, I've kept journals when I'm thinking through a work-in-progress, and I've also pulled several tidbits from family stories and memories when I'm creating characters and events in my books. I've drawn from a cranky old neighbor on the block where I grew up who used to yell at kids for running through her garden (sounds like a fairy tale but it's true), to my two older kids' combative but deeply loyal relationship.

When I visit schools, I tell kids a true story about becoming a writer. As the oldest of three, I was the designated babysitter when my parents went out for date night. Keeping my two energetic and often wild younger brothers in line was no easy task. As soon as the car backed out of the driveway, my brothers started acting up. The arguments always centered around which TV show to watch (one TV, no streaming, no laptops), and usually ended with one pummeling the other. And a bloody nose. Or two. 

So as a kid who loved to read and write, what did I do, after I realized it was futile to try and stop my brothers from fighting? I grabbed a piece of notebook paper and a pencil and wrote it all down. From the beginning of the argument as the sun was setting and ominous shadows fell across the kitchen floor, to the fight and the bloody nose (and how I stopped the bleeding). I left these notes for my parents to read when they returned home - with the suggestion of who was at fault and who should be punished.

But more than reporting on what occurred while they were gone, these were stories. My first stories. They contained a vivid setting, tension, action, a climax, and a resolution. My mom even kept one of the notes, and I read it aloud at school visits and ask kids if they think it sounds like a story. They agree that it does, but can't seem to understand the TV show argument :)

I often think back to these early first "stories" I crafted and try to keep their honesty, simplicity, and sincerity in my heart when I write today.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of four middle grade novels from Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. Her fifth novel, Hello from Renn Lake, will be published in May 2020. More at micheleweberhurwitz.com.

Friday, November 15, 2019

More Alike Than Unalike

This month, we explore family stories and journaling, I must admit I have never used journaling. And I lost my family – both my parents and my brothers --  over 30 years ago, so I tend not to dwell on those memories. Perhaps this explains my connection to story, and storytelling. We are homo narratus, story animals, suggests Kendall Haven (Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, 2007). We have told our stories for over 100,000 years. Not every culture has developed codified laws or written language, but every culture in the history of the world has created myths, legends, fables, and folk tales. As Rafe Martin tells us, traditional tales belong to the world of the imagined, to the portals of dreams. “They are the eternal literature of humanity.”

Stories remind me that I belong to something bigger.  We are the human family, Maya Angelou reminds us. We are more alike than unalike.

We Are Family
(Maya Angelou, from her collection, I Shall Not Be Moved. Penguin Random House, 1990)

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I've sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I've seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I've not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England's moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we're the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

Listen to Maya Angelou narrate her poem, We Are Family 

-- Bobbi Miller

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

A Journal By Any Other Name....

Does this count as a hot take? --> There are no bad ideas, just bad execution. 

To whatever degree I’m an optimist about writing and the creative process, that optimism is rooted in my belief that I can make any story work if I just spend enough time plugging away at it. That’s not to say that I never give up on ideas. But my gut tells me that the process is more about choosing which ideas I want to stick with than it is about which ideas are “good” or “bad.” (And to be clear, I’m operating here under a definition of “story idea” as something that age-appropriately conveys some truth about the human condition. Appropriateness is always a factor!)

Like a lot of writers, I’m always on the lookout for new ideas. I don’t keep a journal, per se, but I do have what I call my idea drawer, which is essentially the same thing.  

My radar is always on. As I move through the world, I’m always capturing people, snatches of dialogue, settings, situations, and other prospective story ideas. If something feels worth holding onto, I’ll scribble it down on one of my zillion small yellow legal pads and then throw it in that little drawer in my office, along with the hundreds of others I've put there over the years.  

So now, if I’m ever looking for a story idea, or for something fresh to put into a scene, or whatnot, I have this whole supply of them—all organic and locally grown—just sitting there waiting for me. 

Chances are, some very high percentage of those scribblings won't ever make their way into a story. Another bit of optimism I carry is that there will always be more ideas than there is time to write them. But just like a halfway decent insurance policy, I'm always glad to know that drawer (slash journal) is there if I need it!

SIDEBAR: In my school visits, I always encourage kids to do something similar--which is also to say, more broadly, that I encourage them to let go of any preconceived notions about what a journal might look like, and to do whatever works best for them, to arm themselves with ideas for when the story-writing time might come. This can be good advice for kids who like to write (yay, more ideas!) as well as those who don't, since coming up with an idea for a story is so often a sticking point.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Once Upon a Time...

With this month's theme's being journaling and family stories, I decided to combine them based on my recollections of early writing as a kid. My sister and I grew up in a poor but loving family. Dad was disabled due to WWII injuries, and Mom stayed at home to care for us. Dad's monthly disability check provided us with food and kept us clothed, but there wasn't much left over for "frills". Yet, we always had newspapers, paper, pencils, crayons and access to books thanks to a local library.

Both my parents were readers, so my sister and I naturally gravitated toward books in all forms. And, we were encouraged to color, draw and write to our hearts content. I remember keeping a diary of sorts as a young girl, where I eagerly filled in such things as Got a haircut today, or Bobby smiled and said hello to me on the playground. And, since we received a grade for penmanship back then, I spent a lot of time practicing cursive writing so I could be good at it.


Practicing my writing skills through letters to friends and relatives was a sort of pastime since calling them on the telephone was expensive and a wasteful use of what little money we had.

I loved these quiet moments putting my thoughts on paper. My reward for these efforts came from the letters I received in return. I'd write on whatever was available - paper bags, wrapping paper, discarded letters - anything that had a clear surface was fair game. I continued this letter writing tradition well into college where I wrote home asking for money or sent greetings and the latest update on college life. In addition to that letter writing, I began journaling in college and have continued the practice - off and on - to this day...10 filled notebooks later.

When I reread some of these letters my Mom happened to save, I chuckle at the wide-eyed optimism and enthusiasm for the life I was living. Though my circumstances have changed and I no longer have to count every penny, the sight of a fresh pad of paper and a newly sharpened pencil still brings chills and makes my fingers itch with possibility. That younger me sits on my shoulder every time I begin to write, reminding me to be open to ideas and to view the world with wonder. Creativity and imagination are free. All we have to do is write.