If You Want to Write a Book: Part II – The Inspiration of Anne Frank

When Otto Frank read his daughter’s diary for the first time after her death in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, he discovered something new about Anne. “Every parent should realize that it is not possible to entirely know your children,” he described in an interview in 1979. This is a surprising observation, considering that the Frank family, along with four other people, lived together 24-hours per day, for more than two years when they hid from the Nazis during World War II. Not only were they each other’s only companions, they lived in a tiny attic space about the size of a one-car garage above Otto Frank’s factory. Workers making pectin (a substance used for making jelly) continued to work on the floors beneath them requiring the fugitives above to be completely silent during work hours. Only a select few who worked below knew about the secreted inhabitants. Anne was thirteen when she, her older sister, and her parents went into hiding from the Nazis who occupied Amsterdam, but she already aspired to be a writer. Initially, the red-plaid fabric covered diary she kept while hidden was the continuation of a writing routine. She started recording her thoughts and observations on her thirteenth birthday in June 1942, unaware that within one month she would climb three, steep flights of stairs to a space where she would enter isolation with her family from the rest of Amsterdam for more than two years. When Anne began her diary she wrote, “Writing in a diary is a really strange […]

If you want to write – a book! Part I

“Wanted: someone willing to sit for hours in front of a blank page and come up with words and sentences which will hopefully become riveting fiction, compelling memoir or beautiful poetry. Financial compensation: potentially zero. Benefits: an excuse to avoid working, housecleaning, laundry, and exercise. “ During a recent promotional event for the People of Yellowstone book at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park, many visitors asked me if I knew when Old Faithful would erupt, but some stopped by our display table to peruse the book and ask questions about writing. Several said that they would like to write a book, too. Some imagined they would write fiction, but most wanted to write about their own life. “How do you begin a memoir?” they asked. “What’s the difference between an autobiography and a memoir?” Why do people think they want to write a book? I asked myself. I’m not sure if I can answer this for others, but I do know that writing is a wonderful and mysterious heroic journey during which it’s possible to make amazing discoveries about our self and the world. “Heroes take journeys, confront dragons, and discover the treasure of their true selves,” says Carol Pearson, author of The Hero Within. I think we can say the same thing about initiating a writing project. It’s a heroic feat. But how does it begin? Most of us wouldn’t consider entering into hand-to-hand combat or a tennis tournament without some training, but to accomplish a piece of writing – a short story, essay, or even a book – it is possible to hone your skills on the job. The first requirement is to put words […]

Grieving the Death of a Child

            When Tom L. lost his son, Mike, age twenty, in a fiery motorcycle accident, he never dreamed he would write a book about it. In fact, Tom described himself as a poor student and felt fortunate to finish high school. But, ten years after his son’s death, he still carried a profound sense of sadness at losing his only child. “Some friends thought I should be feeling better by that point,” recalled Tom. “But you just can’t push a button and make the pain go away.” He visited a counselor who told him that what he was feeling, besides normal grief after devastating loss, might be unattended sorrow. “Perhaps there is something else that you need to do, something that really allows you to express your feelings. Grief is like a garden in a heart washed out by a storm. You’ve got to tend the soil and grow new flowers. You seem to have a circle of supportive friends, but are there any details about your son and your relationship with him that you’d like others to know?  Why don’t you write me a list of those things, those thoughts that you want to nurture and grow.” Tom started writing and couldn’t stop. “I wrote my heart out,” he said. Two weeks later he had two hundred pages describing his son and what it was like to be Mike’s father – and eventually his friend as Mike grew into a young adult. Not everyone will attempt to work through grief by writing a book, but anyone who has experienced the death of a child of any age understands how profoundly difficult it is to ease the ache in the heart. What writing seems […]

Story Circle Star Blogger

Story Circle has been celebrating women’s writing for more than 10 years. I’m honored to be recognized as “Star Blogger” for January, 2014.

Why I Write

A recent issue of The Writer magazine featured writer Alice Hoffman speaking about how and why she writes. On the subject of reading and writing she says “Writing serves the purpose that reading used to serve for me. I always feel like reading save my life because it was a place for me to escape. I feel like quitting all the time, but the act of writing is like being in an ecstatic state. It’s like being high because you are not there. You’re experiencing something on a different plane.”   I feel what she means about writing, but what exactly do I feel? Making a list is always a good thing to do when this kind of question comes up. Here is my list of eighteen reasons why I write:   To understand what I’m thinking. To revisit places and people of the past via my imagination. To entertain myself. To feel the magic triangle between ideas, the pen on the page and the written result. To dig for buried treasure. To reflect on common things. To reflect on extraordinary things. To approach an understanding of human nature. To contemplate death. To open a window in my brain. To translate experience into understanding. To be with others through language. To discover my childhood. To describe. To play with words. To find lost worlds. To remember To forget.

Veteran’s Writing Project: The stories that must be told

I am honored to have an excerpt from my memoir published this month in O-Dark-Thirty, the magazine of the Veteran’s Writing Project. Here is a description of the project written by the editors: “O-Dark-Thirty is the journal for the Veterans Writing Project.   Our editors curate the works submitted to this site. We have two sections. The Report is our hub. It’s where the vast majority of our work will be based.We chose the title The Report because of this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes: The generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. In our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, we have seen with our own eyes, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us. The Review is our quarterly journal. It will be a little tighter, more closely edited. It might have themes. It is our plan to present the finest literary writing we can find. One of the tenets upon which we built the Veterans Writing Project is the idea that every veteran has a story. This site is where those stories get told. Sure, there are other places to hear or read the stories: around the bar, on a road trip, in some other journal. But like the man says, “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.” This is our journal. It was conceived by and designed for, is run by, features work written by, and provides voice to members of the military community.” My story, What the Dog Understood, describes a […]

Writing Down the Ham Bone: Healing the Griever Within

I borrowed part of the title of this essay from Natalie Goldberg whose generous craft book, “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within,” offers great sustenance to writers. Her’s is a healing book to encourage writers to get on with life, to feed the writer spirit, to be attentive to place, to memory and experience. I’ve been grappling with writing about healing from grief, specifically how I survived the death of my husband in Vietnam in 1969, and then the tragic death of my father after a construction accident in 1981, and my younger brother’s death from AIDS in 1989. I’m not special in my experiences. It is rare to meet anyone who has not experienced a generous helping of tragic events. But, my question is: How do we share these experiences among ourselves? How do we decide what to do and what to say? Can we pinpoint things that are helpful? Being a lover of cooking and the sharing of food, some old culinary memories bubbled up as I thought about living through tough times. I can’t say that I desired anything to do with eating in the aftermath of learning that my husband had been killed when I was twenty-three, but I do remember the presence of food in that difficult time; I remember people gathered around me at the dining room table and in restaurants where others ate and I sat in stunned silence.I remember kindness and encouragement without pressure to participate and eat. When my grandmother died in 1972, a basket arrived on our doorstep even before the funeral. It contained a […]

Mental Clutter: Organizing the mind for writing

  Perhaps it’s the winter season and I think I should be hibernating. Why else do I have the sense that I can’t get myself organized to write an essay? The ideas are there, piling up like laundry ready to be sorted and folded and put somewhere. They fly around in my head, meteors intent to land and make a big splash, promising to be the beginning of an interesting adventure on the page. But – the big BUT – I seem to have turned the lights off on the landing field. My brilliant gems zoom off untethered into the stratosphere. The end result: my mind is cluttered with bits and pieces, words, storylines, plot ideas, and nothing is happening on the page.   Peter Walsh, an authority on organizing the content of homes, believes that organization begins in the mind rather than in our basements, closets or garages. Walsh became famous as an organizer of clutter and cluttered minds on the TV series, “Clean Sweep.” He doesn’t focus on objects (things) when he helps people to tidy up, he goes right to the heart of the matter. He asks his clients: “What’s your vision for the life you want and the home you want?” He works room by room with people, starting with the purported “purpose” of the space. In each area he picks up objects and asks the owner if the thing moves them closer or farther away from their vision of the life they want. If it’s further away, out they go.   Let’s visit […]

Writing When the Time is Right: Memoir and Emotional Events

On this New Year’s Day, I am stuck on a thought: When is a writer ready to write about an emotional life experience? Most writers of memoir say that we need time and distance to enter the reflective process, especially with a highly charged memory. We know we have been transformed, but how? Transformation (healing, movement of ideas, change) occurs slowly over weeks, months and often years. Each person responds in their own rhythm with the revelation and understanding of how the event is part of the big picture – the story. For those who want to nudge the process along, taking notes and keeping a journal is useful. Then, at the right moment, a voice says: Write something, now. Surprise yourself with ideas about what happened. Go as deep as you can, for now, always asking: Is this true?   My mother and I were more like sisters than mother and daughter. She lovingly tolerated me when I was a child, but a deeper, more collegial bond emerged when I became an adult. I was surprised when I felt “orphaned” after her death on January 1st, 2008 at 12:00 noon.  I was sixty-one and thought it odd to feel bereft of a parent in this way. I had witnessed her decline for years and I watched her battle against impending death during the four preceding days and nights that it took her to depart the world. The sudden awakenings, the furtive looks, the grasping for my hand, the noisy, ominous breathing, the calming effects of morphine doses – only during the last four hours of her life did she seem […]

Reading, Writing: The Natural Life of a Reader

I read for pleasure, information, adventure, enlightenment and inspiration. I read other writers who are writing in the same genre as myself, usually the personal essay, to keep up my energy and try to understand what I’m doing. Reading is an unending source of nutrients. When someone recommends a book – and I like it – it’s the best present I could receive. A friend recently suggested Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories, and now I’m ready to read everything written by Steven Millhauser. I enjoyed the same feast years ago when I discovered Robertson Davies and Carol Shields. I could read The Stone Diaries again and again except that now, waiting for me, there are new discoveries: Out Stealing Horses, The Library at Night, Travels with Herodotus, and on and on. Barbara Holland says in Endangered Pleasures, “ move permanently into one’s head and construct their own space there, a kind of walled garden full of tame dragons that we can walk around in whenever we want.” Love of books and stories bubbled up through my family. I remember my father reading the Encyclopedia Britannica throughout my childhood; he was never put off by an obscure or dry subject. As we sat in the living room together in the evening, whatever we were doing separately was punctuated by enthusiastic yelps from dad, like, “Listen to this! You’ve got to hear this,” and he would read aloud about an explanation of mitosis or yet another lost tribe. At bedtime, he would spin a new rendition of Brer Rabbit and Reddy Fox as my brothers and I […]
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