Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Quotes for the Week: Writing

“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.”
—Philip Roth

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
—Stephen King

“Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”
—Enid Bagnold

“I don’t care if a reader hates one of my stories, just as long as he finishes the book.”
—Roald Dahl

“If a nation loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood.”
—Peter Handke

“We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.”
—John Updike

“I don’t need an alarm clock. My ideas wake me.”
—Ray Bradbury

“Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.”
—Ray Bradbury

“Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
—Ray Bradbury

“I always start writing with a clean piece of paper and a dirty mind.”
—Patrick Dennis

“Writers live twice.”
—Natalie Goldberg

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Giving Birth to a Memoir: Part 1: Conception

A writer writes, so in 2004 when my husband was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, I resolved to write a book called Leukemia Wife, in which I would share with others whose spouses were facing cancer some suggestions  for how to get through it.  It would be an upbeat book with tips on how to manage everyday life while, like me, working ten hours a day and making daily visits to the hospital.  It would have hints on how to be more efficient, how to cheer your spouse,  how to deal with chores that used to be his.  (OMG, now I have to take out the trash...get the car repaired...fix the leaky toilet.  By myself!)

As time went on, I decided to add a chapter on how to get along with insensitive doctors and insurance companies and how to convince your husband that the meals sent to his room were delicious--of course, they weren't crappy--I knew because I was eating the same gourmet food in the cafeteria.

But my perky book was not to be.  Ralph got sicker and sicker.  "Medical mishaps" occurred.  The month-long stay in the hospital turned into two, three...seven months.  And the disease, which had been in remission, returned, to take over his blood system and to end his life barely a year after it made its presence known with an ordinary sore throat.

I don't journal.  I like structured writing. I find it more painful to write down my meandering thoughts than to speak them aloud.  So in the early months of widowhood  I didn't heed friends' suggestions to work through my grief on the page.  Instead, I went to counseling, tried a grief group, vented to my children. 

But again, a writer writes.  The urge to write awoke inside.  I couldn't write a happily-ever-after story like the ones I'd written for Harlequin and Silhouette--not then.  But the need to write grew stronger.  I wanted to write about Ralph and his struggle...and mine.  I wanted--needed--to write a memoir about our final year together.  The problem was, I didn't know how.

Next week:  Giving Birth to a Memoir, Part 2:  Gestation

Monday, January 21, 2013

Missing His Voice

For many years we had the same message on our answering machine:  my husband's voice saying in a midwestern twang, "You have reached the Zirkelbachs.  Please leave a message at the sound of the tone."

After he died, I kept the message.  It was my one "real" connection to him. Friends and relatives who called always expressed their pleasure at hearing Ralph's voice, even if it was just a recording.  I loved hearing it, too, and besides, it's a good idea to have a man's voice on the answering machine. 

When I got a new phone system a few years ago, I managed to put the old message on.  It was muffled, but that was okay with me.

This fall my phones gave out.  I bought new ones but I couldn't use Ralph's message; it was so full of static, no caller would have understood it.   Now it's gone.  And I miss it.  I feel sad when I call home to pick up messages and hear myself answer.  Every New Year's at midnight, I dialed our number from my cell phone and welcomed the new year in with Ralph.  Silly, huh?  But it meant a lot to me.  This was the first New Year's Eve that I couldn't call.  But his voice is still there in my mind and in my heart. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Interview with Cathy Bryant, Contributor to On Our Own: Widowhood for Smarties

Cathy Bryant is the author of the delightfully touching "Tense Dating" in the anthology On Our Own:  Widowhood for Smarties, published by http://www.silverboomerbooks.com  Here's my interview with her.

TZ:  I loved "Tense Dating."  How long were you widowed when you had this experience?

CB:  Actually it's about my friend Elizabeth, and I'm Anne, the friend in the story in which she realizes she turns off potential dates by saying she's married.  She was widowed at 44 and was 55--a very young and gorgeous 55-- at the time that the events in "Tense Dating" happened.  It tore my heart out when I realized what she was doing.

TZ:  Her husband made her promise she'd find love again?  Did she?

CB:  She's doing her best.  She's actually dating a lovely man who adores her, and she really likes him.  But it's hard.  She's wrestling with all sorts of feelings--guilt in spite of her promise, for instance.  Dating brings a new kind of grief.  It could go either way, but my money's on love winning.  I just want her to be happy because she's terrific.

TZ:  For yourself, what has been the hardest part of being a widow?

CB:  All the widows I know agree on this one--missing the person one thought one would be with forever.  I'm the unhealthy one.  I've always had illnesses and disabilties.  When I lose anyone, I think, "But I was supposed to go first."  I want to have an argument with him about it.  It's funny how one misses the rows as well as everything else.

TZ:  I miss them, too.  Alas, he could always out-argue me.
Tell us what you're most proud of.

CB:  My friends.  I'm very lucky in my friendships.  I always have been.
Also, I've done all sorts of things, making my jar larger.  Let me explain.
This really helped me.  I heard it at various widowhood seminars, and then in magazine articles, and I hope it's reached America.  (Note:  Cathy lives in England) If you imagine that your life is a jar with a ball in it, and the ball is your grief, most people realize that the ball fills the jar when you are widowed.  It's overwhelming.  But they think as the years pass, the ball gets smaller, your grief lessens and you recover.  That isn't what happens and it isn't what should happen either.  Our grief is one of the things that links us to our deceased partners.  I don't want to stop grieving or to stop missing him.  And that's fine.  The best plan isn't to make the ball smaller--let yourself grieve--it's to make the jar bigger.  Enlarge your life, try something new, take up a hobby, change something, meet new people as well as cherishing old friends.  Keep the ball, but in a bigger jar.
I have a friend who was widowed terribly young, in her thirties.  She has chosen not to find a new love, but she has, well practically, taken over the world.  She travels all over the planet and writes travel pieces, sometimes for very well-known newspapers now. She went vegan and started a fabulous new blog, and makes maazing cakes.  She is really living life to the fullest and is one of my inspirations.

TZ:  Tell about your writing background.

CB:  I've always been a scribbler, since I was a tot.  When I was little, I had dreams of publication, but a couple of early rejections put me off.  Like a lot of writers, particularly women writers, in my experience, I lacked confidence.
I was 39 when I spent New Year's Eve with my best friend, Neil.
"Do you have any New Year's resolutions?" I asked idly.
"Yes," he said, surprising me with his vehemence.  "My resolution is for you to get your stories and poems published, and if you don't even try, then my year will be a complete failure and it will be all your fault."
I thought he was joking, but he said that he was quite serious.
I sent six pieces off, just to prove to him that I was no good and that no one would want them.  Two were accepted...one to a paying market.  It was such a thrill to see my name and my work in print and for a kind stranger to send me a cheque for it.
Needless to say, I kept submitting and was very grateful to Neil.  I shudder to think what would have happened if I hadn't gotten an acceptance for one of those pieces.  I often get six rejections in a row, so it could have happened.
I started to perform my poetry at local events, too, and met a book publisher who became a fan.  He published my first collection of poetry, "Contains Strong Language and Scenes of a Sexual Nature," which meant that I had achieved my childhood dream of publishing a book of my own.  It finally went into profit when I won the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Prize in 2012.  The attendant publicity was very helpful, and everyone was so nice.

TZ:  What is your current writing project?

CB:  I usually have a whole mess of things on the go, being an untidy sort of person, I'm afraid.  The main one is a novel.  I did Nanowritmo last year and wrote the first draft of a novel, "Beloved Idiot," in a month.  However, it needs about a year of editing, I reckon.  I'm also working up to a second poetry collection and still entering writing competitions and sending short stories and poems to anthologies and so on.  It's all such glorious fun and takes you to such interesting places.

TZ:  Any advice for writers...other than finding a friend like Neil?

CB:  Yes, lots. Try everything--ficiton of all lengths and poetry in all forms.  Some won't suit you, but you'll always learn something.  Keep writing, even if it's only for ten minutes a day, or an hour a week--it will stop your muse from falling asleep or wandering off.  Like anything else, it helps to keep your hand in.
If you'd like to be published, then submit like mad.  Expect loads of rejections--we all get them.  I always say you aren't a proper writer until you have a pile of rejection slips (or these days, a file full of rejection emails).  Learning to submit is a skill in iself andit can be learned over time, so don't be put off by initial lack of success.  Proof your work carefully and get friends to help with this, too--however good you are at Engish, you tend to see what you intended to write rather than what you actually did write.  Go to any local writing group--some are free or very cheap, and it's amazing how a simple bit of constructive criticism can turn an unpublishable piece into a publishable piece in a few short minutes.
I have two metaphorical hats.  The first is my creative hat, and when I'm wearing it, I let myself write whatever I like, and go with the flow.  But the second is my editor hat, and when I metaphorically put it on, I am quite fierce with my work, giving it a harsh critique, as an editor has to.  Editing "Best of Manchester Poets" every year has taught me so much.  When you can only pick one poem out of every ten received, any small error can mean that a poem will be excluded--one simply has to be very, very picky.  So, when editing, I'm quite ruthless.  I recommend that two-hats approach--it doesn't stifle your creativity but does allow you to edit properly and get things ready for publication.  If you try to edit as you go along, then I find that you can't create as freely and can't always get into the writing groove.
Finally, if blocked, try any writing exercise and let yourself write badly.  It's fine to write terrible first drafts, particularly to get out of a block.  Don't expect yourself to be Shakespeare every day. Also, take the pressure off.  Don't worry about where you will send the piece or how your writing career is going--just remember why you wrote in the first place--for sheer love of it, out of curioisity, or just for fun.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Quote for the Week

May you live every day of your life.
             Jonathan Swift

Monday, January 14, 2013


Whoosh:  a feeling of joy that suddenly bursts forth, thrills, excites and touches your innermost being.


Have you ever experienced a whoosh event?  In a New York Times column dated 12/31/10 and titled The Arena Culture David Brooks suggests that in our modern world we often find out whoosh in the sports arena.


He says, “Spiritually unmoored, many people nonetheless experience intense elevation during the magical moments that sport often affords. Dreyfus and Kelly, authors of A Shining Moment mention the mood that swept through the crowd at Yankee Stadium when Lou Gehrig delivered his “Luckiest Man Alive” speech, or the mood that swept through Wimbledon as Roger Federer completed one of his greatest matches.

The most real things in life, they write, well up and take us over. They call this experience “whooshing up.” We get whooshed up at a sports arena, at a political rally or even at magical moments while woodworking or walking through nature.”

My Women in Transition group discussed “whooshes” during our January meeting.  Some mentioned helping others, being in relationships, writing.  I’m not sure these are true whoosh events.  While they may give satisfaction and/or fulfillment over a long period—and they do for me, too--I don’t think that are what David Brooks had it mind. 


I think he was talking about a momentary event, brief but exhilarating.  An ordinary event that suddenly jolts you into awareness that this is the beauty of life.  Or an event you share with others, that makes you feel part of a community.  Yes, it can be sports.  Growing up in Austin, Texas where not loving football would have made you an outsider, I remember when singing “The Eyes of Texas” and standing for the kickoff gave me that glorious feeling of belonging…to a group of like-minded fans, to Texas, to the best state in the Union. 


And being a Texan, coming upon a field of bluebonnets for the first time each spring, gives me that same whoosh of pleasure. 


Or seeing a place I’ve always dreamed of visiting:  Monte Alban near Oaxaca, the shore by Galipoli, Notre Dame—travel brings me that same feeling of exhaltation. 


You might think widows wouldn’t feel those intense moments any more, but I still do.  From many things--Beethoven’s Ninth, driving through the mountains, looking up on a clear, star-filled night, fireworks on the Fourth of July, the scent of magnolia.

Even though you have no one to share them with, if you pay attention, you’ll still find those experiences that bring you joy.


What gives you a whoosh? 



Thursday, January 10, 2013

Interview with Peggy Muir, Contributor to On Our Own: Widowhood for Smarties

Another in my series of interviews with the talented authors who contributed to On Our Own:  Widowhood for Smarties.  This week it's Peggy Muir, author of The Colander

TZ:  Please summarize your essay for readers.

PM:  The Colander is about the power of objects in our lives to become icons, to evoke memories, to trigger pain.  Small things can have a big impact.  When someone dies, the items he used and wore and touched seem to contain some lasting essence of the person.

TZ:  I found your story delightful.  It's amazing to think how one small item can evoke so many memories.  How long after your husband's death did you write this?

PM:  I wrote The Colander almost six years after losing my husband.  And those are two things that remain impossible but I have written themk--"six years" (now seven) and "losing my husband."  Impossible but true.  Oh, and I still have that banged up colander.

TZ:  Have you written other pieces about him?

PM:  I've been writing regularly since I lost my husband.  I have written mostly about the physical and psychological effects of grief which I was surprised by (eg. I lost the ability to see color for six months).  I started writing haiku, liking the pithy quality of short verse.  It was a way to express the outraged anger, bitterness and wry humor of the widow.  I hope to finish a book and I have a lot down.
A major source of strength and reward is the small arts center we have stgarted in my husband's memory in my small Maine town.  I write about his sculptures and his life.

TZ:  What has been the hardest thing about widowhood for you?  How have you managed to cope?

PM:  I so miss the laughter.  My husband was just so much fun.  We laughed a lot.  We could be silly together and yet tend to the serious things in life and have amazingly deep conversations.  There are special times when I start laughing at something and feel him smiling.  Touch is also something I miss.  At times I have felt as though the palms of my hands would burst into flames if I couldn't touch him again, just to hold hands.
Wow.  Coping.  Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't.  Sometimes I go for long walks, sometimes I read what I call "bathtub novels", sometimes I go to bed.  And it has been truly lovely to find him again in my dreams. 
My son and daughter-in-law and my grandson are so important.  When the grief was new, special friends became my guides and saviors, one wonderful couple still has me for music and food weekly.  Massages help.  And art,.  I think, as I wrote in one haiku, that humor has helped a lot.  "Why me"  became "Why not me?"  Turning outward has helped--i.e. doing things for my family and my town.

TZ.  What are you most proud of that you've accomplished as a widow?

PM.  When my husband died, I had to decide what to do about Toad, the 26 foot long sloop scow he had built for us.  We had sailed together for over 20 years, but I had never taken the boat out on my own.  I had to get her ready, learning to do the scraping-caulking-painting. and she's a big boat, learning to run the motor solo, wield the lee boards and haul up the sails alone.  And then, slowly, I learned to run her on our demanding river and bay, and finally could sail solo.  I have been captain of Toad for 7 years and it gives me immense pride and joy.

TZ:  Tell us about your writing background and a little about your writing process.

PM:  My father was a writer who wrote every day of his life, so I grew up seeing the hard work and discipline and rewards of the writing life.  I enjoyed writing in school and still feel I write nonfiction best.  My graduate work in anthropology required a lot of writing.  My husband was a Wall Street reporter at 18 when we met and he was always able to dash off an article  and sell it to a magazine or newspaper.  We started to write together and published a number of articles.  I was a public high school teacher for 29 years and started writing a lot about education and what I taught as well as curriculum and reports.
I have writing spurts.  I jot down lines or phrases that touch off my thinking.  I often sit down at the computer with my coffee, check my email and then start writing.

TZ:  Any advice for writers?  How about for widows?

PM:  It was really liberating when I realized you don't have to start writing at the beginning--i.e. you can write chunks and string them together and move them around and even write the first serences last.  Just start.  Get it down.  If you can't find the right word, leave dashes and go back.
The first advice for new widows is just to breathe because that in itself will be the hardest thing imaginable.  There is no "getting through" or "getting over" the death of the love of your life, but you do learn to go on.  I think it's important to say ( and some people I know really don't like this) that I don't think I will ever be 100% again and that's okay.  I have a good life and many joys and rewards.  And I was so very lucky to have had the years with my husband

You can purchase a copy of On Our Own:  Widowhood for Smarties  on Amazon or Barnes and Noble or from the publisher at www.silverboomerbooks.com.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Quote for the Week: Dreams

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
Langston Hughes

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Txting: Good, Bad or Who Cares....and a Contest

Do you text?  I don't. 

My granddaughter does.  In fact, she can text a gazillion words a minute while staring off into the distance.  Like most teenagers, her hand seems glued to her cell phone.  Here's a quote from an article I read:  "Mobile phone ownership is universal and people use them constantly.  If you don't have a mobile, you're effectively a non-person."  (Whew, glad to know I'm a person.)

What's a mobile phone for, if not to text?

So...IYO TXTing = Gd 4 or NME of GMR?  Cute, huh?  I didn't make it up; I found it in an article on texting and its effect on grammar. 

On the one hand...

Here are some anti-texting quotes (Sorry, I mean anti-txting):

"Linguistically, it's all pig's ear.   Texting is penmanship for illiterates."  Sutherland, 2002.

"...vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago...pillaging our punctuation, savaging our sentences, raping our vocabulary."  Humphreys, 2007.

OMG, i bet u didn't no tXting ws that powrfl did u?

Many teachers worry that texting will ruin students' language skills but this has not been clearly proven.  One conclusion some teachers have come to is that students who text the most are used to short messages and their essays lack depth and supporting arguments.

On the other hand...

"Netspeak is a development of millennial significance.  A new medium of linguistic communication does not arrive very often in the history of the race."  Crystal, 2001

ok, that 1's ovr th top.

Here's what Columbia University linguist John McWhorter, my favorite Teaching Company lecturer, thinks.  He likens texting to ancient Mayan writing; for us, it's an informal use of written language.  He says calling texting bad writing is like calling music by the Rolling Stones bad classical music.  Texting isn't formal writing nor is it meant to be.  He adds, "This speech on paper is vibrant, creative and "real" in exactly the way that we celebrate in popular forms of music, art, dance and dress style.  Few among us yearn for a world in which the only music is classical, the only dance is ballet and daily clothing requires corsets and waistcoats.  As such, we might all embrace a brave new world where we can both write and talk with our fingers."

Here are some clever ways teachers have incorporated texting into the curriculum:
1. Having students translate text-drenched pieces into standard English;
2. Having them translate passages from classic literature into textspeak;
3. Having them summarize passages from Shakespeare into text to check their comprehension.

Did you know there are actual text poetry contests?  The Guardian has one, and here's my favorite poem, by Lucy Sweetman, one of the runners up:

w8 fr yr mesg the beep yr wrds of rude luv.
U mke me blush w

The curve of yr letters u tch me thru my palms, my eyes.
Isn't that sweet?
Now for the contest.  You thought I'd forgotten, didn't you?
Post a short poem in text language in the Comments section by Monday, January 14.  Winner will get a copy of a romance by Lorna Michaels (aka me). 
Lking 4wd 2 cing yr NtrEs.



Thursday, January 3, 2013

Books of December

I know.  You're going to read this list of books I read last month and think, "Wow, she's a morbid person.  Does she have a death wish, or what?  Honestly, I'm quite normal.  These were book club choices or random picks.  You might even enjoy them.  Read on.

The Coroner's Lunch is a mystery, a very funny one, set in Laos.  The coroner, Siri, is a spry and charming 70-year-old, whose job has been rather dull until...   You'll have to read it and see.  Grade A.

At the End of Life.  Okay, this really is about death.  It's an anthology of beautiful essays, some of them award winners, about people dealing with friends, relatives, or patients who are dying.  Another A.

I spotted this book at the airport and the title intrigued me.  The book, not so much.  The author and his mother, who is dying of pancreatic cancer, talk books.  I didn't find their observations about their readings very profound or even mildly interesting, nor did I ever really feel the emotion someone might feel as their parent is dying.  Somehow I never really felt she was at the end of her life; she was too busy flitting about...to Geneva, to London, etc.  This book got rave reviews, but for me it was pretty much a waste of time.  B-

To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my very favorite books.  Every now and then my book group reads a classic and you can't find a better written, more thought-provoking and enjoyable book than this one.  A+

Escape into Danger is a WWII story of a young Russian girl's adventures as she moves through Russia and into Germany and eventually to the United States.  A-

What are you reading?  Have you read any of these and if so, what did you think?  What's on your TBR list for 2013?  Leave a comment.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

For the New Year: Prayer by Maya Angelou

Father, Mother, God,
Thank you for your presence
during the hard and mean days,
for then we have you to lean upon.
Thank you for your presence
during the bright and sunny days,
for then we can share that which we have
with those who have less.
And thank you for your presence
during the Holy Days, for then we are able
to celebrate you and our families
and our friends.
For those who have no voice,
we ask you to speak.
For those who feel unworthy,
we ask you to pour your love out
in waterfalls of tenderness.
For those who live in pain,
we ask you to bathe them
in the river of your healing.
For those who are lonely, we ask
you to keep them company.
For those who are depressed,
we ask you to shower upon them
the light of hope.
Dear Creator, You, the borderless
sea of substance, we ask you to give to all the
world that which we need most--Peace.

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