The best writing advice ever

When people ask me about writing – what they should do and how – I often find myself sharing the advice others have given me.

I’ve been fortunate to attend writing workshops led by amazing writers and writing mentors. In the ways of the universe, each of these leaders has given me the perfect bit of guidance I needed at just the moment I needed it. I received most of this advice as I was writing memoirs, so their advice was given in the memoir context, but I find that it applies equally well now that I’m writing fiction.

In homage to all of these amazing writing spirit guides, here’s their advice.

  1. Give yourself permission to write. New to the memoir writing experience, I found myself agonizing about what shape my final manuscript would take. The sequence of chapters. The number of chapters. Marc Niesen, told me there was a time to worry about that but not while I wrote my first draft. He said, “Put your editor hat in the closet and put on your writer hat. For six months, just give yourself permission to write.”  I did. I even put a sticky note with this directive on my computer, “Today I’m writing about growing up on the farm.” Six months later I had my book.
  2. Tell the truth. If you don’t, the reader will know. Mary Kay Shanley explained that memoir writers may be afraid to go deep into the facts, situations, emotions of what happened to them. When the writer skims over the truth, readers can sense it and the writer loses credibility. It was amazing to me that time and again as my writing buddies read my drafts, they invariably zeroed in the places where I’d hoped not to have to go. Mary Kay also said that a writer may not be ready to go deep and that’s okay, but that means it may not be time to write that book.
  3. When something needs to be written, it will be. Just keep writing. I’ve heard this from many of my guides, but I’ll credit it to Mary Nilsen who led a personal essay workshop. I’d come to her workshop with ideas in mind about what I wanted to write. I wound up writing about something far different, something I’d kept to myself for more than 30 years. Obviously this needed to be written. That’s the only way I can explain writing a 14-page essay overnight.
  4. Write the shitty first draft. One of the biggest barriers to writing is perfection. So in one way or another every workshop leader advises giving yourself permission to write the bad first draft. Get it all down and then worry later about adding polish. NANOWRIMO is one of the best experiences for pushing on. Write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days? Sure! Just write 1,666 new words a day, every day, and never look back.
  5. Apply butt glue. I don’t remember the writer who shared this bit of advice at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, but I remembered it because it was funny and I use it because it works. American editor and novelist Peter DeVries spoke to the same concept when he said, “I only write when I’m inspired and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 a.m.” If I sit down to write, and commit to staying there until I do, I will write. No writer’s block allowed.

These are bits of wisdom I live my writing life by. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Gratitude in a drought?

Hot, dry weather yields brilliant fall color – 2012

Are all these sunny, dry days good for us? Only in Iowa would someone even ask that question! I spent last week in California where no one ever questions “yet another day in paradise.” But here in Iowa, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

As the sunny, dry days stretch on, I look at my flower gardens, which I don’t water, and wonder how many of the plants I’ll lose by next spring. I look at my prairie, which history says can stand the swings of nature, and notice that the grasses thrived in the dry heat while the flowers were much less lush and brilliant. And all of the prairie plants were shorter.

The farm fields suffered painfully in the drought. I hated even to look as I drove by many fields of corn. The leaves were curled up and pointed to the sky, as though pleading for rain. When none came, eventually, the stalks wilted, turned brown and crumpled. Yields are way down and we’ll all feel the farmer’s pain at the grocery store in coming months.

At lunch today, a friend commented, “This area wasn’t made for perfect weather all the time.” He’s right. Iowa thrives with the change of season. We thrive when we have sun mixed with regular rains, hot days followed by cold days. We thrive when it all evens out.  This year hasn’t been like that. I joked when we were getting 70 & 80 degree days in March that we were going to have the longest summer on record. I didn’t know how right I’d be. I didn’t know it would be a California summer.

Looking past concerns of drought, I have to say a California summer in Iowa is beautiful – the endless perfect days, the ash trees turning gold. I’ve determined to be grateful for the beautiful weather, to marvel in the brilliant colors, to be outside as much as I can be. And to try not to worry that there’s no rain in the forecast for another 3-4 weeks. If then.

I will remind myself that in all things I can give thanks.

In need of peace

Purple Coneflowers

Deadlines and ‘shoulds’ were getting to me yesterday, so I headed to the prairie to take a break, hopefully to find a little peace. The prairie welcomed me with bright colors and gentle breezes. A half hour in the prairie and I returned to my desk refreshed. 

Join me for a few minutes in the prairie where I’m going to let nature speak for herself in these pictures.

Wild Bergamot beginning to bloom.


Rattlesnake Master


Hoary Vervain and Black-eyed Susans>


Purple and Greyheaded Coneflowers






What’s new in the prairie?

Pale Purple Coneflower

My normal tendency is to worry. But the prairie has taught me at least two things: 1) the prairie can take care of itself and 2) my worrying about it accomplishes nothing. So I approached the prescribed burn we conducted in March with optimism. Simply the next step in prairie life.

I’m pleased to report that the prairie is thick with growth since the burn. Grasses and forbs are waist high. Some plants are even taller. Many of my old favorites are back along with some that are new. Dots of yellow, blue and pink blooms are a small taste of the technicolor blast to come.

Common Spiderwort

The first blooms of the spring were Spiderworts. The name isn’t appealing, but the multitude of bright blue blossoms (picture shows much paler than they really are) that grace the end of each stalk certainly are.  A friend and I went to the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge recently. It’s always fun to see what plants they have blooming compared to what’s in my prairie. I saw  spiderworts  sprinkled throughout the prairie. I only have this one cluster of plants and hope to encourage more in future years. That blue over a wide space is lovely.

New! I spotted my first Pale Purple Coneflowers this spring. Unlike the Purple Coneflower, the Pale Purple variety has delicate, long slender leaves. The petals are thinner and paler pink (not surprising given the name). Apparently this variety also blooms earlier in the spring since I don’t have any Purple Coneflowers blooming in the prairie yet.

Showy Tick Trefoil

I finally took my Tallgrass Prairie Wildflower book to the prairie to identify this flower that perplexed me last year. I am almost certain it’s a Showy Tick Trefoil. What causes me to stumble is that the book says it blooms in mid-late summer. And here it is one of the earliest blooms. So I could be wrong. If anyone has another idea, please let me know.

There is a redbud tree in the middle of the prairie and I wondered how it would survive the burn. It suffered a setback but I’m pleased it is still alive. For a while, I wasn’t sure. The few blossoms came  weeks later than other nearby redbuds. Leaves came from near the base of the tree but not the tips of the branches. I took the loppers and did a hard prune yesterday. It looks better than it did, but has quite a bit of coming back to do.

Fortunately, the bluebirds still find the tree a favorable spot from which to eye the birdhouse we build for them. We had one hatch already and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for another.

Do any of you readers enjoy the prairie as much as I do? I’d love to hear where you visit the prairie and what you’re seeing.

Hard Hats for Habitat

I put the hard hat on because they made me. It felt awkward though the safety glasses were even worse, perched over my regular glasses and so scratched seeing through them was a challenge.

Not wearing safety gear is not an option, the site supervisor said. So I put them on. I’m nothing if not a follower of the rules. This was my first Habitat for Humanity build and I wanted to do it right.

Joining a Habitat build has been on my ‘to do’ list for some time and when the Women Build Week email landed in my inbox, I signed up, enlisting my friend Sheryl to go along. Since my husband and I remodeled a house we bought six years ago, I’ve been a fan of wandering the aisles of Menard’s, Home Depot, and Lowe’s. Trouble is we don’t have enough building projects of our own to satisfy my desire to hammer. A Habitat build seemed the logical conclusion. And I’d get to do something good for someone else at the same time.

The day started with orientation, not just to safety on the construction site but also to Habitat for Humanity. Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity plans to build 26 houses this year and rehab several more.

Contrary to what many people believe, Habitat homes are not free. Families who want to partner with Habitat must meet several criteria:

  • They must currently be living in substandard or cost-burdened housing
  • They must be willing to volunteer 400 hours of “sweat equity”
  • They must be able to repay an interest-free mortgage over 20 years

Habitat does not charge interest on its mortgages, nor do they profit from them. Mortgage payments from Habitat homeowners go towards building more Habitat homes.

Right off the bat, I was impressed by the design of the house we worked on. The style and size fit right into the established neighborhood. Neighbors were very interested. One woman spent much of the afternoon watching us work.

Because I was less concerned with heights than others, I worked most of the day on scaffolding using a power screwdriver to put up furring strips. My friend spent most of her day installing windows. Toward the end of the day, we took up hammers and pry bars to remove 2×4 braces and ready the house for the crews who put up siding, install wiring, and put up sheetrock.

Though this was a women’s build week, I was pleased to see so many men show up. In the afternoon, a group of what looked to be teenaged boys came and with the confidence and agility of squirrels took to the roof to finish roofing the house. I’m okay with heights, but would have passed on doing the roof.

By the time we’d swept out the house, put away the tools, and turned in our hard hats and safety glasses, I admit I was exhausted. From 8-4 on a construction site is not at all like sitting at my computer all day. I was also grateful for that hardhat. Working under the eaves and climbing up and down on the scaffolding 20-30 times throughout the day, I must have hit my head at least a dozen times. And didn’t get hurt even once.

My Habitat building experience was rewarding. I’d do it again. And the beers we threw back at the end of the day weren’t bad either!

First blooms in the prairie

All signs of the prescribed burn we did on the prairie a month ago are gone. With each rain, each wind, each day that passes, the burn is less visible. In fact, only a few blackened stalks remain. New green growth rules. But each plant is discrete. This early in the season, patches of the ground are clear.

As I walk the prairie now, it’s encouraging to see now-familiar plants emerging–coneflowers, asters, cup plant, blackeyed Susans. And my favorite from last year–rattlesnake master–is there, too.

But the prairie is full of surprises. The first blooms of spring aren’t any of the plants I recognize. Instead, the first bloom is an entirely new plant to me.  Golden Alexanders.

When I first saw them, I feared we had an infestation of wild parsnip–a plant that is noxious and actually dangerous if you get the sap on your skin. But I took my trusty prairie wildflower book to the prairie and made a positive identification. Leaves and flower formations all confirm these plants as Golden Alexanders, a member of the parsley family.

My book notes that early pioneers thought the plant would cure syphilis.  One has to wonder how they may have come to this conclusion?!?

Another new resident in the prairie this year is a bluebird. We put a bluebird house at the edge of the prairie last year, but too late to attract anyone interested in nesting.  This year, a bluebird moved in right away. When I walked by the birdhouse, thinking I’d take a peek inside to see if anyone had taken up residence, the mama came flying out. I quickly walked away. Now that I know she’s nesting, I’ll give her a wider berth.

The prairie is an endless source of learning and surprise. I’m glad it’s spring in the prairie yet again.