Taking writing on the road

Writing can be a solitary business. When I’m working on a writing project, as I am now with my novel in progress, I get to my keyboard each day by 9 a.m. and do my best to stay on task until noon. I dive headlong and alone into my story – forgoing phone calls, emails, social media and texts. For the past couple of months, I even set aside blogging. (Did you notice?)

I was urged out of my writing isolation by an invitation from Janet Givens who offered her home on Chincoteague Island, VA, as a retreat space for writers she’s come to know via social media. Since my writing friend Mary Gottschalk and I love a good road trip; we love talking writing; and we love the inspiration that inevitably results from our time together, we loaded the car and headed out.

Friends & writers - Mary, Shirley & Carol

Friends & writers – Mary, Shirley & Carol

We looked forward to joining the authors on Chincoteague Island, but the journey to get there was an equally important part of our experience. In Harrisonburg VA, we spent a night with Shirley Showalter, author, friend, dairy farmer’s daughter, and co-founder with me of I Grew Up Country. The beauty of the Shenandoah Valley grew more vibrant in color and meaning as Shirley and her husband Stuart shared their Mennonite and family history. Thoughtful conversations about next stages in writing and life made it difficult to move on.

Natural beauty deep in the earth.

Natural beauty deep in the earth.

After a morning at Luray Caverns and an afternoon in the Shenandoah National Park, we were welcomed to Charlottesville, VA, by Joan Rough and her husband Bill and their dogs – Max and Sam. In between tours of Monticello and the University of Virginia, we tucked conversations on Joan’s upcoming memoir, Bill’s playwriting, and art in general since Joan’s creative talent manifests in many directions.

Making avatars into real people. Mary, Carol & Joan.

Making avatars into real people. Mary, Carol & Joan.

Monticello in spring

Monticello in spring

 

 

 

Finally on Chincoteague, we joined Janet, poet Merril Smith, memoirist Marian Beaman and author/nurturer of women’s voices Susan Weidener. Loosely structured, the retreat became whatever each of the authors wanted. Blogs. Poetry. Editing. Essays. Marketing. Technology. Who knows what will result when a group of creative minds come together? Friendship. Sharing. Support. Inspiration. Synergy, for sure.

Synergy: the creation of a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts.

Every day of the trip brought new thoughts, new inspiration, new friendships and richer understanding of renewed friendships. I hope you’ll take a moment to look into each of the women from this writing journey. You won’t be disappointed.

Cooking together deepens the writing experience.

Cooking together deepens the writing experience.

Even though writing can be solitary, I’ve never felt alone. The synergy of weeks like this are one reason why. As I return to working on my novel, I’ll do it with renewed enthusiasm and insights ignited by this trip.

 

One bit of Synergy: Our discussions of social media techniques led me to make a couple of changes. I added a box you can click to notify you of responses to comments you make. And, I moved the share buttons to the handy position below. If you find these posts interesting or helpful, please share with your friends.

Iowa Caucus yields host of winners

Des Moines, Iowa, caucus goers stand to be counted. Action of great interest to media. Photo courtesy of Robin Fortney

Iowa caucus goers stand to be counted. Action of great interest to media. Photo courtesy of Robin Fortney

I woke this morning with a profound sense of peace. In spite of blizzard force winds raging overnight, it was remarkably quiet. Political ads no longer filled the airwaves. Campaign text messages no longer flooded my phone. Local coffee shops are devoid of TV cameras and candidates. Can it be true? Are the caucuses really over? Is it safe to go back in the water?

The Iowa Caucuses – a rather quirky political event – begin the process of selecting the next president of the United States. This year was particularly exciting with spirited competition in both parties. 

You can read ad infinitum about the caucus results, who won and who lost and what happens next, elsewhere. As I participated in the caucus, I saw winners of a different ilk.

Winners

Celebrity Spotters. During caucus season, if you don’t add to your life list of personalities seen up close and personal, you made an effort not to. I stopped for coffee one morning and ran into Chris Christie. Another day, I set up my computer at a coffee shop to write and was completely distracted by a CBS TV crew filming Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett interviewing average Iowans. A friend planned to see all of the candidates this season. Her only requirement was that they come to her part of Des Moines. She tagged more than 75%.

Iowa Tourism.Caucus tourism” is a real thing. People from all over the country and all over the world come to Iowa in the dead of winter to see democracy in action. And to participate. Tourist volunteers from across the country arrive individually and in small and large groups to knock on doors and staff phone banks for candidates. Some visit just to enjoy the rallies and soak in the energy.

The Candidates – Iowa’s grassroots approach forces candidates to leave behind the soundbite, look voters in the eye, and explain their positions. Hillary Clinton is stronger because Bernie Sanders forced her to engage at a level she may not have otherwise. Ted Cruz held events and talked with voters in every Iowa county while Donald Trump opted for large events where he controlled questions and blocked media. Look who won.

Both Parties, New voters, Future voters. Caucus participation was record breaking this year in part because candidates brought messages and style that attracted voters young and old who didn’t think the establishment spoke for them. Nothing but good in all those new, enthusiastic voices. May they stay engaged. Caucusing is a family affair and many families bring their children who grow up seeing their parents involved in democratic action.

The Rest of the U.S. – Already the field is tightening up as non-viable candidates drop out. Believe me, after watching political ads ad nauseam for months, I know you want to thank us for taking one for the team.

And losers?

Every caucus, the inevitable Why Iowa? question surfaces. The complaint is that Iowa doesn’t represent the country so it doesn’t deserve the honor. I  suggest Iowa does represent the country in the best possible ways.

  • Intelligent people who take the time to learn about the issues and engage the candidates.
  • Engaged people who can gather with neighbors, stand in public representing vastly different candidates and views, and go on being good friends and neighbors at the end of the night.

I am prejudiced, but I gauge the Iowa Caucuses a success. In any case, we happily pass the baton to New Hampshire while we enjoy peace and quiet for a couple of months knowing it won’t last. Soon after the November election, we’ll start seeing people again, potential candidates testing the water for the next go round.

Did you caucus in Iowa or watch the event from afar? What did you think?

Cleaning out, letting go, starting fresh

Photo courtesy of: MorgueFile.com

My office bookshelves were nearly this bad. Photo courtesy of: MorgueFile.com

I ended the old year as I often do – by cleaning out my office. This December gave me an even better opportunity to clean out, though, since my husband and I agreed to tackle remodeling my office – the last room in our house to get a new ceiling, new flooring, new paint. Since every surface would be new, every single thing had to come out before we could begin.

Touching every item twice – going out and going back in – as well as the weeks when boxes filled our bedroom and furniture distributed through the rest of the house, gave me ample opportunity to consider what was there and how much of it I really needed.

It also allowed an opportunity to look at my life and how it has changed – or stayed the same – over time. From this exercise I observed:

Letting go takes time. When my mother passed away in 2007, many of her things came into my office. Everything from memory books to hats to estate documents. For the first time, looking at these things, touching them, remembering, did not leave me in tears. I was able, finally, to give away, to throw out, or to consolidate the memories to a couple of small boxes. There may be a time to let even these go. Maybe in another 10 years.

The same could be said for the books and files from my 30-year career in public relations consulting. I finally admitted that if I hadn’t looked in these files for 14 years, it was unlikely I ever would. Out they went.

Themes arise. I found no fewer than 10 sketch pads of various sizes, each with less than a dozen pages used. Since childhood, I have yearned to draw. I hadn’t realized how persistent that yearning has been over the years. It may be time to act on this interest in a more purposeful way. Drawing and writing are not far apart, I think.

I kept all of the sketch pads and all of the drawing materials, consolidating them into one place. I should not have to buy new when I take up drawing again.

Losing pounds. Like many, I often think about losing a few pounds at the end of the year, though I commit to that idea about as well as most and with less vigor each year. In December, I succeeded in spades. I estimate I shed a good 50 pounds, probably more, of books and files. knickknacks and gifts never given. I was stern with myself, and I think I did a pretty good job. Not the pounds I usually think of shedding, but even so, I now walk into my office feeling ‘lighter’ with all the clean, open space. It cheers my mind to realize that I know what I have and where everything is.

I spent almost no time at all writing in December, giving myself over happily to the holidays and family and remodeling the office. Now I start the new year fresh, with a new coat of paint, new clarity, and new purpose. I hope last year ended as well for you and that you, too, look forward to 2016 with optimism.

Top 10 Reasons To Love the Iowa State Fair

Our state fair is a great fair, acclaimed in book, movies, and song. As a 4-H member I yearned to go. Alas, that desire was unfulfilled. Now that I live within four miles of the main gate, though, I never miss the annual extravaganza.

With a nod to David Letterman and the Late Show, and before August slips away, I must share my Top 10 Reasons to Love The Iowa State Fair.

Drumroll please …

Iowa State Fair Goat

Keeping an eye on passers by.

10. Inquisitive goats. And pigs and horses and cows. I love livestock.

9. Joining a queue for no reason other than the possibility of free stuff. Our line led to Mixify – an initiative to help educate teens about the importance of balancing calorie intake with activity. I explained how I keep moving and walked away with a t-shirt and a frisbee.

8. Cattle Judging. Watching little kids manhandle a 1,000 pound steer around the arena is a hoot. “Just don’t let go,” is the advice one kid gave the new Drake University President Marty Martin before the celebrity steer show. Good, simple advice; I like that.

Iowa State Fair Giant Pumpkin

The winner weighed in at 1,235 pounds.

7. Giant things – Random things – Butter things – pumpkins, tomatoes, bull, boar – a hot wheels race on the grand concourse – the butter cow, joined this year by a tribute to Monopoly. It’s all good.

6. Food on a Stick – The Ultimate Bacon Brisket Bomb, a bacon-wrapped, ground brisket/jalapeno/cheese-filled concoction earned the public’s favorite new food-on-a-stick award, so of course we tried it. The smoked brisket mac n cheese is better. IMHO.

5. Quilts – The needlework is amazing. My friend Sheryl entered five projects and took ribbons on four. My sister-in-law Anita won a blue ribbon. These are talented folks.

4. Ice Cream. When one massive scoop costs $4 and a second massive scoop costs only $1 more, you can imagine what we chose. Even though that’s more ice cream than I eat in a normal week. And I eat ice cream every day.

Iowa State Fair - Chia Cow

Just the thing for a dairy farmer’s daughter.

3. Peanut Brittle Judging. My first experience at food judging provided 17 entries –  enough to appreciate the range of Iowa candy maker creativity – and satisfy a sweet tooth.

2. A Chia Cow. I want one.

1. I avoided every single presidential candidate. Given the number of candidates and the fact that every one of them wants to see the butter cow and flip a pork chop and hold forth from a hay bale, that’s no small feat.

There you have it my friends – The Iowa State Fair. I can’t wait for next year.

What are your favorite things to do at the fair?

On the other side of the table – Iowa State Fair

With every presentation I made as a 4-H member, getting to the Iowa State Fair was my goal. Each year, I did my best, yet it was never enough to go beyond the county level. The judges always chose someone else, and I was always disappointed. I spent some time railing against the unfairness of the judges, let me tell you.

Seventeen peanut brittle entries waiting for the judges.

Seventeen peanut brittle entries waiting for the judges.

As an adult living only four miles from the fairgrounds, the allure of the State Fair remains strong. I’m always eager to attend. A couple of years ago, I entered a quilt and earned a third place ribbon. For once, I was delighted.

It didn’t occur to join the judging ranks myself until this year when Des Moines Register columnist Kyle Munson announced on FaceBook that he was looking for judges to join him for the new peanut brittle competition.

Peanut brittle is one of my favorite candies. I make it every year. Seemed like those were qualifications enough to judge. I signed up.

When the day rolled around, I was ready. And excited. And hungry.

Seventeen entries greeted us. A respectable number for the first year, and a number we figured two judges could get through in the hour allotted. Volunteers supplied plates, napkins, and damp clothes, along with crackers and water to cleanse our palates. A writer sat beside each judge, to record our comments, tally scores, and keep things moving.

Spectators filled the chairs, leaning forward in anticipation, straining to hear our words, watching our faces as we sampled from each plate. Some hoping, no doubt, to be judged the winner. With their eyes on me, I felt the weight of responsibility.

The task was more challenging than I imagined it would be. Judging is a subjective task, maybe more so when it comes to food. The score sheet with it’s weighted percentages for Taste, Texture, and the nebulous Other Considerations gave some structure to the process. But even with that, there were so many reasons to have different opinions.

  • Was the best peanut brittle the one that was most like the recipe I make and love dearly?
  • Was it one of those with unexpected ingredients, like dried Kalamata olives or cayenne pepper and mustard or the perennial State Fair favorite bacon?
  • Or one of those stretched so thin with forks you could almost see through the brittle?
Judging at the State Fair level is serious business.

Judging at the State Fair level is serious business.

As it turns out, 17 entries is a lot to judge in only one hour. One little taste of an entry, savor the flavor, consider the texture, note whether it stuck to my teeth, take into account how it was presented. Make comments. Assign scores. Eat a soda cracker. Drink water. On to the next entry.

After we evaluated each salty/sweet brittle individually, Kyle and I went behind the curtain to discuss and decide on the final winners. We emerged with three ribbon winners and an honorable mention. The crowd applauded the results. The blue ribbon winners cheered.

Judging peanut brittle taught me a lot. Being a judge is tough. You want to be fair, you want to reward the best, but best is relative. I can be more empathetic with the judges that kept me out of the State Fair all those years ago. I still don’t like it, but I empathize with their challenge. And I empathize with those who entered full of anticipation and didn’t win. Judging can be as bitter sweet as entering.

In case you’re wondering, we awarded the blue ribbon to a wonderful peanut brittle that included a hint of coconut and was served up in a little red bucket with tissue paper. I’ll be trying that secret ingredient myself come the holidays.

Can you believe your eyes?

Seeing something with your own eyes is proof. Right? At one time or another, most of us have said: “Seeing is believing.” or “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Drifts pile 20-30 feet high - ideal for sledding and snowboarding.

Drifts pile 20-30 feet high – ideal for sledding and snowboarding.

We’ve also said the opposite when reality goes against what we know or believe to be true – “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

I experienced a disconcerting disconnect between my eyes and brain when I visited White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. Encompassing 275 acres of desert, White Sands is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world.

Coming out of the snowy Midwest as I’d done, my brain was conditioned to to see white as snow. To expect cold. To be wary of ice.

Prefer to sled barefoot? Snowboard in shorts? Try White Sands.

Prefer to sled barefoot? Snowboard in shorts? Try White Sands.

As I drove further into the park, leaving vegetation behind, the 20-30-foot high drifts of white looked like snow. I grabbed a coat as I got out of my car only to remember it was 70 degrees out.

Graders cleared the roads, scraping away drifts of white, leaving packed white surfaces. I touched my brakes lightly lest I skid off the road at the next curve. I accelerated with great caution fearful my wheels would spin out.

White Sands National Monument - Silhouette

Reality is distorted in White Sands.

Visitors to the dunes did nothing to clarify. Barefoot kids in shorts played at winter sports, sledding and snowboarding off the steep dunes.

As a writer, I often draw on my own experiences for emotion and sense. My time at White Sands gave me a whole new well of disorientation from which to draw.

Even though I was in the park for five hours, I never did reconcile the reality of what was there with what my mind believed to be true.

I really could not believe my eyes.

Marketing a book with a “Use By” date

This  cartoon circulated on Facebook, and I laughed because it hit me where I was. When I indie published Go Away Home this past July, I geared up for intensive marketing over the long term. I didn’t realize my new book would have a “Use By” date.Simon or Peter Cartoon

I published the novel through Createspace for worldwide distribution, and I also printed a quantity of books through a traditional printer to use locally because the per copy price was significantly better. I also printed bookmarks in quantity. If it took me a year or more to use up the supply, that was okay. It’s not like they were going to spoil.

Then Amazon Publishing came calling, acquired my book, and what do you know? Now there is an expiration date. I can market the current edition of my book and distribute the bookmarks until July. But when the new edition launches, the first edition goes off the market.

I can’t bring myself to recycle them. So, what to do with more paperback copies of the book and more bookmarks than I can use through my normal channels in the next five months?

This month, as I drive to Arizona to visit family and friends, I’m spreading the love with my book and bookmarks. In each town I visit, I find the public library and gift a book. In each rest area and restaurant, I hand out bookmarks and leave a few on tables. I feel a little like Johnny Appleseed, only I’m sowing the love of reading.

This is my idea of the day. Do you have ideas for other uses for books and bookmarks with a Use By date? Let me know. The clock is ticking.

I’m thankful – Today and everyday

Thanksgiving Day gives us a reason to say thanks. It’s a little sad we may need a reason, though I understand how it happens. We’re busy. Too much to do. Not enough time.

Because I sometimes have a tendency to get wrapped up in doing rather than being, I have made an effort of late to purposely, intentionally, mindfully be thankful.

Here are some of the things I’m thankful for today and always.

Our home and the trees that surround it.

Maple tree & House

 

 

 

 

 

My granddaughters who show me what true joy looks like.

Making Cookies

 

 

 

 

 

The prairie where I revel in the beauty of nature and practice mindful patience.

Prairie Flowers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My husband who still surprises me.

David & Carol Anniversary

 

 

 

 

 

Women friends who encourage me to greater heights and prop me up when I’m low.

Friends in hats

 

 

 

 

 

Readers who buy my books and then take time to tell me they enjoyed reading the stories.

Go Away Home Review

 

 

My son who is a fine man and a great dad.

Lance & Girls

 

 

 

 

 

My feet are thankful they get to spend a week on a warm beach when Iowa is bitterly and prematurely cold this winter.

feet

 

 

 

 

 

My sister. My nieces and their families. My neighbors. People like you who read my blog. Good health. The good fortune to have been born in America.

I could go on. And on. And on. I’m one lucky person, and I know it. My cup overflows. So on Thanksgiving Day, I am purposefully, intentionally, mindfully thankful as I join with so many others in saying thanks. Thanks!

They did me wrong! Now what?

Someone cut you off in traffic. Cheated you out of a promotion. Stole your big idea. Or worse for us writers – Reviewed our books with words that stung. Then gave us a One Star rating. They’d have given us zero stars if Amazon let them. Ouch!

How do you respond when you’re wronged? Do you rage on Facebook and Twitter? Curse the wrong-doers? Nurture the hurt until it becomes a festering wound that damages everything you do for weeks and months after?

Or do you find a way to let it go?

Author Kathryn Craft shared great advice on Writers In The Storm for handling the inevitable negatives. I’m sharing her words that are written for authors but apply equally well to every person whose suffered injury at the hands of another. Plus there’s a great video. Don’t miss that.

Here’s the beginning of her post. Click to read more. It’s time well spent.

You Did Me Wrong—Right?

Kathryn Craft

Turning Whine into Gold

This month I’ve been seeing a lot on social media about the benefit of positivity. It is the simplest and most immediate cure for whining!

A positive attitude will keep you in problem-solving gear and
win you many champions in the publishing business.

In this great interview between Porter Anderson and my friend and NYT bestselling author Jonathan Maberry, Jonathan says, “more doors will open if you go into the business with happiness and joy and optimism.”

No truer words, my friends.

Negativity

As storytellers we get to play God. We can make good and bad things happen, and have it all come out the way we want it to in the end. But real life is less ordered. It requires us to deal with circumstances beyond our control. To surrender. Reframe. This skill set will help you leave despair behind and turn toward optimism and hope.

Dealing with it

Keep reading by clicking here.

How do you hold on to first-time awe?

My granddaughter started kindergarten this past week. When she told her dad about her first day in school, she could barely contain herself.

  • “Guess what? We played in the gym!”
  • “Guess what? We had music class!”
  • “Guess what? I met new friends!”
  • “Guess what? I ate my lunch there!”

She had a truly awesome, magical first day.

As I thought about the joy and awe with which my granddaughter launched into school, I realized how seldom I feel that sense of magical awe anymore. When you are five, most things in your life are glorious, untarnished firsts. When you are sixty-five, firsts – when I have them – occur in the midst of days crammed with responsibilities and in the context of a lifetime of experiences that tinge awe with reality.

I know I have so many reasons for joy and awe. Yet, often I rush past them, thinking instead and ahead to the next meeting, the calls waiting to be answered, the blogs to be written, the host of responsibilities that crowd every day. As a result, I look past the moments of joy and awe while they’re happening rather than reveling in the moments.

Part of the answer for me, I think, is to be conscious of the need to slow down, to live, to breathe, to take joy in each moment. Then I also need to spend more time celebrating those precious moments.

She lost her first tooth!

She lost her first tooth!

I can learn from my granddaughter. Before school started, she lost her first tooth. She was over the moon. She wanted every picture I took to show she’d lost that tooth. When she visited this weekend, she had a second tooth on the verge of coming out. She is just as excited. We took pictures of the loose tooth, and I know we’ll take more pictures when the tooth is gone.

The launch events last month for my novel Go Away Home were amazing, joyful experiences. I did have to run from event to event, but after the last event, my husband, son and I went out to celebrate. They were so happy for me – I was so happy for me. Celebrating at the moment expanded the joy – and kept me from rushing right into thinking about the next task on the ‘to do’ list.

Holding on to the joy and reveling in the joy, ensure special moments remain special. They allow me to squeeze every drop of pleasure out of those precious moments in my life.

My wish for my granddaughter is to be able to experience that first-day-of-school, first-lost-tooth, first-time awe many, many times in her life.

My wish for me is to remember that there is joy to be experienced if I slow down and absorb it.

 How about you? How do you keep a sense of joy and awe in your life?