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

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.