Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Pencils

. . . Or pens, or laptops. Someone probably once told you that writing has benefits. I’m talking about benefits that go far beyond getting published and making a fortune as a bestselling author. (Thank God, because that rarely happens!) Did you their advice seriously? Did it really sink in that writing has actual health benefits? It’s true that writing can heal you and help you in myriad ways, some of which you’ve likely never considered.

Writing helps you gain control of your emotional state. Sure, it would feel great to verbally tear into that co-worker who always takes credit for your work or offers backhanded compliments, but you’ll be the one left looking petty. If you put those feelings on paper (and maybe burn them, depending on what you wrote!), you’ll experience relief similar to what you’d have felt if you told him off in person.

Journaling can help you land a job faster. Laid-off engineers who kept a daily journal had more successful interviews—they were hired—four times faster than their peers who didn’t write.

Writing improves your sense of self and self-trust. Seeing your private thoughts and emotions on a page is validating. It provides self-recognition of your feelings, and this acknowledgment allows you to better appreciate yourself and accept yourself—positive and negative attributes alike—for who you really are.

Keeping a gratitude journal makes you happier. Regularly writing down the things for which you are thankful has been proven in psychological studies to heighten your sense of well-being and actually alleviate the physical pain associated with neuromuscular diseases.

Addressing a problem on paper helps remove fear. Discussing a problem with yourself on paper requires you to organize your thought processes and create clarity. Drawing out your inner wisdom by focusing your thoughts into strings of written words eases difficult decision-making and creates resolve for solving problems.

Journaling inspires you to make better choices. Knowing you will write down your actions later in the day may prevent you from making poor choices. (Would I really want to write that in my journal? Wouldn’t I rather brag about this, instead?)

Writing with pen or pencil improves memory recall. While I’m all about MS Word, I’ve personally experienced the fact that, if I take notes by hand, I do a better job of remembering what I wrote than if I typed those same notes. Now there’s scientific proof that handwriting lists, notes, addresses, incidents, events, and so on better helps you remember them.

Writing reveals limiting beliefs. Re-reading what you wrote weeks, or months, or even years ago helps you see patterns you didn’t know existed. You’ll clearly see answers that were once cloudy. In retrospect, you’ll be able to make better sense of the past, and seeing positive growth through your journaling is an excellent boost to your ego and self-esteem.

Journaling is an ACTion. It is a physical accomplishment that subconsciously directs the mind. It’s a form of written meditation, like downloading your mind. This release of thoughts and feelings is healing—emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically.

Do you journal now? If so, what benefits have you found from this “daily dump” of your thoughts and thought processes? If you have never tried journaling, why not start today?

I challenge you (call it a triple-dog dare, if it’ll motivate you) to start and keep a journal for ten days. When that time is up, go back and re-read what you’ve written. What did you discover about yourself during those ten days? Did you sleep better after getting those swirling thoughts out of your head? Do you feel more motivated to work toward a goal? Will you continue to keep a journal? Share with me below how this ten-day experiment worked for you.

triple dog dare

Writers Reading

It’s a question writers often ask their friends: what are you reading? Often the answer will be a novel from the bestseller list; less often, classic literature or a short story collection; even less often (sadly), a book of poetry. When writers ask other writers the same question, common responses might be reversed, and answers likely include books on the craft of writing.

Writers aren’t snobs to bestselling genre fiction—some of us love nothing more than a lighthearted beach read or eerie horror story now and again. After all, it’s a writer who wrote that bestseller. Still, the books and novels you’ll find on an author’s bookshelf may differ from those on Great Aunt Martha’s shelf, or your cousin’s shelf, or even your best friend’s shelf.

Why is that?

Mostly it’s because, as writers, we understand the importance of reading the best stories, and by best, we don’t necessarily mean bestseller. We mean stories with characters we can’t forget, with plots that we’ll be thinking about a year from now, and with a narrative voice that rings in our ears forever. Writers also understand how crucial it is to study in perpetuity the craft of writing. We are students until the end of our days. While we’re always looking for the next, greatest writing book, we still return to ones we’ve read before, knowing we’ll learn something new—something we missed the first (or second) time around, when our writing skill was at a different level.

craft boooks

A large shelf in my office is filled with books on writing craft, and there are still more stacks of texts about writing in other areas of my home. Rarely does a week go by that I don’t read a chapter—or several—from one of these sources of inspiration, style, and skill.

Below are titles of a few texts I’ve found extremely helpful as a fiction writer and to which I often return. I hope you’ll share in the comments some of the books on craft that have helped you grow as a writer. Because, as you well relate, I’m always looking for the next great book on writing.

The Lie that Tells a Truth by John Dufresne

The Art and Craft of the Short Story by Rick DeMarinis

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter

From Where You Dream by Robert Olin Butler

Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern

On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing by Eudora Welty

Writing Fiction by Gotham Writer’s Workshop Faculty

Building Fiction by Jesse Lee Kercheval

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway

Now share your favorites below!

 

Amateur Foodie Funday

About once a month, or most any time we’re traveling, my husband Randy and I enjoy our Sunday Funday with an amateur foodie fest. Our rules are simple: aim to try a different restaurant each time, or if we end up at one we’re familiar with, we must try a new dish. The final rule? Have fun! We believe we qualify as amateur foodies; first, because our waistlines prove we’ll try anything once (twice, if it’s yummy); and second, because a good portion of our home is furnished by prizes and prize money I’ve won in cooking contests. Neither of us is the new Tom Colicchio, but we know good food.

This Sunday Funday’s dining drive took us long Florida’s East Coast, so we could enjoy the sun and scenery after a rare week of chilly weather. We began our wannabe-foodie fun with a warm and filling late-morning brunch at the San Diego Grill, a casual, California-style eatery in Port Orange. Randy’s Border Omelet took up half of his plate—a three-egg omelet stuffed with bacon, not-too-spicy pico, jack cheese, and sour cream. The omelet was topped with four slices of ripe avocado and drizzled with a zigzag of sour cream. Toasted, buttered English muffins were his bread of choice, though rye and wheat toast were also available. I ordered the Ham and Cheese Quiche and received a large portion—a quarter of an entire pie. The buttery crust was homemade, flaky, and tender. Small cubes of ham and melted mild cheddar were ensconced in perfectly cooked eggs. Other offerings we passed on included peanut-butter-and-chocolate-chip waffles, spinach and tomato Benedict, French toast, and more. Both of our dishes were served with fruit salad made up of sliced strawberries, red grapes, fresh pineapple wedges (no canned stuff here), and cubes of honeydew, cantaloupe, and watermelon. Here we gave thanks for Florida’s year-round growing season, as everything tasted garden-fresh.

From there we drove north along A1A Scenic Highway to Flagler Beach and Flagler Beachfront Winery, because what good is a sunny day on the coast without a wine slushie? Yes, you read correctly. A wine slushie! Flagler Beachfront Winery brings in grapes from all over the US, including from their own vineyards in Ohio. The wine is bottled by the owners and local volunteers in the on-site bottling room, right across the street from the ocean. Every visit to Flagler Beachfront Winery is different from the last, as different wines and wine blends are available each time, and the winery holds a variety of fun events to keep you coming back. Sunday’s event was a book signing featuring four local authors, but fun-runs, charity events, even chocolate-cake- and popcorn-tastings are on the event list. Tapas is available for noshing, including featured meat-and-cheese plates, breads and oils, flatbreads, and more. Randy enjoyed his favorite of their many wines, Flagler Beachfront Winery’s own Blueberry Sangria wine slushie, while I tried—and loved!—their new Very Berry Sangria wine slushie. We sat on the oceanfront patio and soaked up the warm winter sun while watching dolphins play in the surf. Yeah, being an amateur Sunday Funday Foodie is a pretty great gig.

flagler winery

Next we stopped in at Break Awayz at the Beach, another oceanfront spot that came highly recommended to us, and with good reason. Break Awayz’s local claim-to-fame is their extensive craft beer list, with nearly 200 different offerings. However, their food menu is nothing to ignore, as the offerings are fresh, flavorful, and hearty far beyond the “tapas” sign that greets you. We opted for the Warm Bleu Cheese Chips and were thrilled with our choice. The chips were crunchy, not at all greasy like some homemade chips, and they were smothered with a bleu-cheese reduction made with heavy cream, then topped with sliced, crisp, green onions and a balsamic glaze. Randy tried a frosty-cold Founders Breakfast Stout, a Grand Rapids, Michigan brew made with flaked oats, bitter and sweetened chocolates and two kinds of coffee. (Beer: it’s not just for breakfast, anymore.) A couple at the table next to us ooohed-and-ahhhed over their burger sliders, vowing they were the best they’d ever had. Other menu options include everything from fish dip and stuffed portabellas to tuna tataki and lobster ravioli. The co-owners, brothers Kyle and Nick, each came by our outdoor, oceanfront table to make sure we were happy and had everything we needed. Yes, Break Awayz, we will be back!

Break Awayz bleu cheese chips

 We then cruised south on A1A into Ormond-by-the-Sea, where we stopped at Lagerheads, which touts itself “The Best Dive in Town”. While it’s uber-casual, Lagerheads is far from a dive, as the menu alone attests. Fresh Cedar Key clams, seared ahi tuna, chicken piccata, and fra diablo mussels aren’t your typical dive-bar food. Since we were not exactly starving (being an amateur foodie is not without its challenges) we decided to share a crab cake croissant with a side of coleslaw. The crab cake arrived on a toasted, buttered croissant, and both were the size of a saucer. The sandwich was served with tomato slices, lettuce and a side of rémoulade sauce. Though we loved the moist, flaky crab cake, neither of us were impressed with the rémoulade, which tasted more like tartar sauce with a bit of ketchup stirred in. The coleslaw was tasty enough to make up for what the rémoulade sauce lacked, however; it was both tangy and creamy. Drink selections here included the usual soft drinks, mostly domestic beers with a few premium options, wine coolers, and a couple of red and white house-wine choices.

Blue Grotto deck

Finally, we rode farther down the coast and into Daytona Beach. We came inland, but wanted to watch the sunset over the water, so we went to Blue Grotto Waterfront Dining (outdoor seating deck pictured above) for dessert. It’s an excellent place to lounge and watch the boats come in, and on weekends you’ll be entertained with live music. We were surprised at how empty the place was, as only a half-dozen people sat among the dozens of unfilled tables outside, despite the warm evening and the acoustic guitar entertainment. Dessert options were limited to three; a cheesecake, pie and a fudge brownie sundae. We chose the fudge brownie sundae (sundae funday?), and again, we received an oversized portion—easily enough for three or four to share. My first thought when it arrived was that vanilla ice cream shouldn’t be pale yellow. Oh, and it should probably taste like vanilla, and truly, it didn’t. The ice cream tasted bland, and the fudge brownie had a mild chocolate flavor, far from what I’d call fudge. It was somewhat dry, but of course, as the ice cream melted, it moistened the brownie. Presentation—in spite of the pale-yellow ice cream—was lovely, as the entire plate was drizzled with caramel and chocolate sauces and dotted with whipped cream. In my opinion, this dessert will satisfy a sweet tooth, but I’ll likely go elsewhere the next time I want a decadent dessert. We finished our amateur foodie tour with mugs of hot coffee as we watched the sun slide toward the water—the perfect ending to Sunday Funday on Central Florida’s East Coast.

Blue grotto dessert

How to Select and Apply to an MFA Program

The first condition of education is being able to put someone to wholesome and meaningful work. –John Ruskin

 

You’ve reached the point in your writing career where you’ve become quite serious about it. You can think of little else besides reading or writing. You yearn for the day when someone creates showers with built-in, waterproof laptops, because you always seem to have a shampoo-lathered head when the ultimate phrase arrives. (Okay, maybe that’s just me.) You’ve heard the phrase “my MFA program” repeated among people you admire so often that it cycles through your head like a Bee Gees earworm. Could it be that it’s time to seriously consider applying to an MFA program?

It’s not necessary to hold a post-graduate degree in order to become a successful, full-time writer; however, immersing yourself into a community of writers for two to three years has great benefits. In addition to showing publishers you are serious about your craft, you’ll network with successful authors, develop a cohort of like-minded writers who will support you through years to come, plus build a firm foundation from which to teach, lead workshops and conferences, promote yourself and your work, and—best of all—write with passion.

Now, how do you journey from the decision to apply to arrive at the acceptance letter? Here’s what I recommend:

  • Begin today. Researching to discover the right program for you cannot begin too soon. While still an undergrad, I began compiling lists of post-graduate writing programs, and I kept a notebook with information of what I learned about each. Some schools I could quickly cross off my personal wish list, because they required a semester abroad, were exorbitantly priced, or focused more on literary theory than creative writing (things that didn’t interest me). Others required classroom participation four days a week, which was out of the question for a working mother like me. Of course, these things may be the factors you’re seeking, so make sure the programs to which you apply fit your needs. Cost is often a concern for many, so if you are counting on student loans, scholarships, or financial aid, know that you’ll need to complete a Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form well in advance. In addition to tuition, don’t forget to factor in travel expenses to/from the program’s location, lodging, food, and textbooks. You will want to research the core faculty of each of the programs where you plan to apply, as well. Aim to read (or at least skim) one book or novel written by each of the full-time faculty members in the program.

 While I’ll quickly admit that I spent over three years doing intermittent research, I’ve since discovered an incredible source of much of this information. Lori A. May’s The Low-Residency MFA Handbook asks and answers many of the questions I had about low-res writing programs, both in the US and abroad. This text addresses the program, teaching philosophy, residency, study format and—especially encouraging—life after the MFA.  Ms. May has done much of the hard work for you, but you’ll still need to handle the application process on your own. Not seeking a low-residency program? Check out Tom Kealey’s The Creative Writing MFA Handbook for great information on traditional-study programs.

  •  Contact the programs. Chat via email or telephone with a faculty member, program director or advisor, a current student, or alumnus of the program. Jot down a list of school-specific questions, concerns about funding, or questions about the residency. The best programs will be happy to talk with you, and many will refer you to alumni or current students for candid conversations with those who have experienced the program first-hand. Face the fact that, if they won’t talk to you now, they won’t be available to help you later, either. Also, consider a site visit. Many programs will allow you to sit in on a lecture, and a few will assign a student tour guide to give the lay of the land. My alma mater, The Converse Low-Residency MFA Program, holds an on-campus information session, where you can meet face-to-face with the program director, some faculty members, current students, and alums. The next information session will be held on Thursday, January 29 from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. on the Converse campus in Spartanburg, SC.  If you can’t attend, you can participate through Google Talk (GChat). Contact program director Dr. Rick Mulkey at rick.mulkey@converse.edu for more details.
  •  Acquire transcripts and letters of reference. This may seem like a no-brainer, but be sure to follow up with the programs to which you are applying to ensure your transcripts actually arrived. One of mine didn’t, and I had to re-request that the transcript be sent. Letters of reference should be written by someone who knows you and is familiar with your writing skill—other than your mother. Consider former professors and deans who read your work, but don’t limit reference letters to academia, unless required. Consider also the boss for whom you wrote a fifty-five page technical manual or employee handbook. Be sure to carefully read each program’s application instructions, as some will request that references be mailed and postmarked at the source, while others will want the letters included in the application packet.
  • The personal essay. Your personal essay should be honest and heartfelt, but not folksy or humorous. Attending an MFA program is one of the most serious decisions you’ll make in your life, so treat it as such in this essay. Describe why you want to be involved in a writing community as intense as an MFA program. What is it that led you to the decision, and what is your motivation to engage in three years of study? How will you make time for the rigorous schedule (typically 20-25 hours a week) of coursework? What obstacles might you encounter, and how do you plan to overcome them? Why does this particular program appeal to you, over others that are available? Are you able to accept critique and apply it to your work? Again, read the application instructions for clues as to what the program director and faculty are seeking in this essay.
  • The writing sample. This is, without a doubt, the most important piece of your application packet. Programs will typically require between ten and twenty-five pages of your best work. Having said that, if your story ends on page eleven or twenty-eight, be sure to send it all—don’t leave them wondering about your ability to end a story. The sample should be appropriate for the program to which you’re applying. Don’t send a children’s picture book to a literary fiction program, and don’t send a short story to a poetry concentration program. Send your very best work. Let me say that again: Send your very best work. Don’t send anything that you haven’t had someone else proofread for typos. Better still; send something that you’ve shared with your writing critique group. Make sure your manuscript is properly formatted. For stories, use one-inch margins with 12-point font and double-spaced lines. It’s important not to take the writing sample lightly. If you don’t feel you have a current writing sample that’s up to par, begin a new piece, and wait to apply until you’re sure you have a high-quality manuscript to send.
  • Other important information. Most applications will ask you to include a list of prior publications and writing awards (if you have them), of professional writing organization memberships, or of writing workshops, conferences, or non-credit writing courses you have taken. Some may also ask for any writing-community involvement, so be certain to mention if you’ve led a writing workshop at your local library or youth camp. In short, if you have a writing accomplishment of any kind, or have worked or volunteered within a writing community, be sure to mention it.
  • Final details. How many copies of the application, essay, and writing sample must you include in your packet? Did you sign the check for the application fee? Did you include both your home and cell number on the application form? Did you write a cover letter for your packet (a brief note listing your enclosures and thanking the director for reviewing your application)? Now is not the time to recycle an old manila envelope, and by all means, if you have a coffee cup stain on your title page, reprint it! It’s not necessary to overnight your application (unless you’re approaching a deadline), but consider sending it in a sturdy cardboard, U.S. Priority Mail envelope. 

Now that you’ve completed and mailed your stellar application packets, I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to post in the comments section below any feedback you receive from writing programs to which you’ve applied. Good luck!

My last day of residency at the Converse MFA Program.
My bittersweet last day of residency at the Converse MFA Program. Tired, but elated!

Writing Time: How Much Do You Want It?

juggling books

You know those writers. Yes, those writers. The ones who teach five English courses each semester, post witty blogs three times a week, and Tweet at nine, noon, and five. They check their bank accounts daily, mail thank-you cards, and submit short stories and articles to the best mags each week. They prepare scrumptious family dinners each evening, and on the rare nights they order take-out, they have to look up the number. They’ve published two novels this year . . . and it’s only January.

The rest of us? Well, we struggle.

It’s sometimes difficult to carve out time to write. Fortunately, it’s not impossible. If it were impossible, the libraries would be empty, and Kindle would bite the dust. I believe that, first, we have to stop thinking about finding time to write, and begin making time to write. There is something, however minor, that you can cut from your daily to-do list and replace it with writing time. You can delegate dog-walking one afternoon a week to a relative or the kid next door. You can forgo Seinfeld or Friends reruns every evening to spend thirty minutes putting pen to paper. You can close your Facebook page, and open a Word document, instead. You can toss vegetables, chicken or beef, and a can of soup or broth in the CrockPot before work, so you can write for an hour, instead of preparing dinner tonight.

In other words, time is available. You have the same twenty-four hours as every other successful writer. And rare is the bestselling author who quit their day job, hired a nanny, a chauffeur, and a housekeeper in order to start a writing career. Sure, a few may relish those luxuries now, but they started at a humbler place, and chances are good that at least one started where you are right now.

Stop. Making. Excuses.

Even good excuses. If you want this, you will make it happen. You will make time to read great novels and study books on writing craft, even if that time comes while you’re sitting in the bank drive-thru or on the sidelines during little-league practice. You will make time to write. You won’t wait for an angel to sing, for the sky to open up and beam down a ray of sunshine onto your laptop. You will make time.

Now is good. Right now.

Write now.

Welcome, Friends!

Welcome to my new blog, Read. Write. Live!  I’m an author, ghostwriter, editor, an adjunct professor of English, a licensed Realtor, and a pretty decent cook. I’m thrilled to be living on Florida’s East Coast, though I equally enjoy jaunts throughout the South and visits to the Appalachian Mountains.

Here I’ll share with you my book recommendations and reviews, my thoughts on writing, inspiration for surviving thriving in a hectic world, and a great recipe or three. (What good is living, if you don’t enjoy yummy food and a great drink along the journey?)

I’ll also treat you to posts from guest-bloggers who enjoy this creative life of reading, writing, and living, so check back often–or better still, click the link to follow this blog!

I invite you to chime in with your own comments and thoughts. Let’s Read. Write. Live!

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