Posts Tagged ‘LinkedIn’

Mockingbird or Watchman? Why Not Both?

July 30, 2015

July 2015 is rapidly drawing to a close. By now, I’ve had enough time to process some of the ongoing controversy and discussion surrounding the release of Harper Lee’s new-to-us novel, Go Set a Watchman. I have been truly amazed by the variety of reactions voiced or written about this book. They run the gamut from a staunch refusal to even consider reading it to wanting to be the first amongst your family, friends, or book group to dive enthusiastically into it. One comment that made my eyebrows fly towards the heavens was the man who wrote in the Boston Globe’s “Letters to the Editor” section “Harper Lee has drawn a mustache on the Mona Lisa”. Methinks he may have preferred To Kill a Mockingbird! Then, there are the academic and writerly types who focus on the differences in style, characterization, and plot between the two books. And let’s not forget those (particularly in the media) who proclaim triumphantly “See, Atticus Finch wasn’t a real hero. He was as racist as anyone else.”

To me, these assorted reactions bear an uncanny resemblance to how Americans treat the subject of racism in our country. Some people choose to see discrimination only in black and white terms, with no shades of gray. Others frame prejudices in abstract language and concepts, intellectualizing any biases they might have. And there is yet another group, made up of people who continue to believe that America can, and needs to, do better in terms of equal rights and respect for all of our citizens, not just a select few.

Just for the record, I liked both books, for different reasons. As a child and young adult, I was greatly influenced by all the Finch family members’ courage, honesty, and willingness to do what they felt needed to be done, instead of  only what Southern society preferred that they do. Truth be told, I wished I had a father like Atticus who talked to his children like they were intelligent adults, who made them read to the old lady trying to kick her drug habit, who shot the rabid dog before it could harm anyone, and who, not only defended Tom Robinson against the repugnant Bob Ewell, but guarded the Negro man’s jail cell against the local white posse.

As a young person, many of our lifelong heroes come from books. It’s difficult for mere mortals to live up to our lofty standards and expectations. When I was younger I didn’t really have a grasp on many of the intricacies of racism, specifically how the North and South addressed the various aspects of it. Mockingbird introduced the topic of intolerance in a way that was easy for children, and most adults, to understand. It opened a door to conversations that Watchman, which I found much more direct, emotional, and gritty in its presentation of the political, social, and racial turmoil that was sweeping the nation, would not have. In fact, I believe that Lee’s first novel would have probably slammed more doors than it opened, given the time period it was initially published in.

For some readers it will be easy to dismiss Go Set a Watchman as Lee’s amateurish first effort, a place where she vented about injustice and the sense of betrayal she felt upon discovering that both her love interest and her beloved father were members of a local Citizen’s Council and that her small town, and the people who inhabited it, were quite different from the people she’d thought she knew and had become accustomed to up North. However, I believe that it’s more difficult not to acknowledge that certain scenes ring true and add a highly believable dimension to some of the characters.

I hope to talk more about this in future posts and I welcome your comments in the meantime!

Expanding your Horizons in the Longer Summer Days

July 15, 2015

Writers need to have fun in the summer too! Something I’ve discovered over the years is that you don’t have to shut yourself in your office with the blinds drawn every day to get things accomplished in June, July, and August. With a little creativity and a lot of flexibility, it’s possible to enjoy the outdoors, try new things with friends and relatives, and work on your tan, while simultaneously exploring the latest topics and generating new articles for the upcoming year. Let me share my latest adventure with you.

For three years now, I’ve wanted to ride the U.S, Mailboat when it delivers mail to the summer cottages on Skaneateles Lake. Last week I finally got it together, made my reservation for three, and hit the road. I chose my traveling companions carefully, asking my son Cal, a fellow writer and college junior, and my good friend Julie who has worked for the Postal Service for years, to come along for the ride. Both of them like to do unusual things and neither gets seasick so I figured they were a winning combination!

Mailboat friendsMailboat

Dressing in layers, I packed my usual writers kit of a notebook and a few pens, my camera, my cell phone, and a few snacks and drinks. The boat was smaller than we’d expected, but quite comfortable, with indoor and outdoor seating. One of the reasons that I’d wanted to take this trip so badly was that I always remember how exciting it was to get mail at our summer cottage on Keuka Lake. That was back in the day when there were no computers or cell phones, in fact we didn’t even have a regular phone or television at our place. The USPS was our only connection to civilization, the lone link that kept us informed about what drama was unfolding back in Rochester. I was curious to see what type of people rode the Mailboat, who worked on it, and how the recipients felt about the aquatic delivery system. Our fellow passengers ranged in age from 8-80. Among them were two older ladies who celebrate their birthdays with an annual Mailboat cruise, a young man with an international friend visiting the area for the first time, and a family with kids. The boat’s captain had grown up on Skaneateles Lake and was full of interesting facts and impressions that he shared freely with us. It turns out that mail has been delivered by boat to the more remote parts of the lake since the early 1900’s so it’s a real piece of history to be part of the experience in the 21st century!

The mood on board was casual and friendly and all of us enjoyed sharing stories about our past and present experiences in the Finger Lakes. An RIT college student completed the crew and was charged with climbing up in the hull and handing off the mail at the various stops, along wMailboat crewith biscuits for the dogs and Tootsie Rolls for the kids who were waiting patiently for the mailboat’s cheerful toot.

It’s a “three hour tour” (no Gilligan’s Island jokes please!) which was the perfect amount of time to really get a feel for the personality of the lake and the people who call it home. The three of us had been to the Village of Skaneateles several times but had never been to the other end of the lake, where many cottages are still primitive and some are only accessible by boat. At the other end of the spectrum are the mansions on the west side of the lake some of which almost caused our eyes to pop out of our heads! And we discovered that it’s true, seeing things from the water as opposed to the land offers a whole new perspective.


Waiting for the daily mail

Riding the Mailboat was inspiring to me on a number of levels. Sometimes we writers forget what’s in our own backyards and sometimes we isolate ourselves for days when we’re writing. Other days we get so caught up in our own thoughts or in our characters’ lives that it’s hard to remember that there’s a real world out there. This summer, make an effort to branch out onto some different paths and see what new directions they take you in.

Any other ideas for other fun Finger Lakes experiences? Let me know!

Thirty Years of Writing Well-Check Out Zinsser

July 2, 2015

I’d like to share my latest discovery, William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, with you. I found his tips on how to improve your basic skills as a writer both practical and helpful, along with his assertion that there’s no excuse for sloppy writing or for failing to master the simple tools that will make your writing easier for your audience to read and understand. Here I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that my long and rambling sentence is one Zinsser would dislike on sight. I imagine he would tell me to stop making it do so much work and to break it into two or three shorter sentences.

Zinsser also dislikes qualifiers like “sort of, quite, and very”. His example of how they dilute the strength of your writing, “Don’t be”kind of” bold; be bold!” made me laugh out loud.

It turns out that starting a sentence with the word “But” is no longer verboten, especially when you’re shifting direction. According to Zinsser, there’s no stronger word to choose when you’re indicating a mood change or contrast. Forget your old middle school English classes and flatly refuse to start sentences with “however”. Instead, embrace the words “but, yet, and (one of my old favorites) nevertheless”.

Keep your paragraphs short. Zinsser explains that writing is visual, catching the eye before it reaches the brain. Given this, he feels the best writers think in paragraph units, rather than in sentence units.

Stay small so you can cover your subject thoroughly. The example he uses is Moby Dick. Melville didn’t write about whaling and seafaring men, Zinsser says. Instead, he chose to focus on one man and one whale.

This is just a taste of what you can expect from On Writing Well. The book is broken into four sections, Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes. Chapters that I particularly enjoyed were those dealing with humor, travel, and memoir writing and the concluding one, “Write as Well as You Can” (ending with a fantastic quote from Joe DiMaggio). It turns out that this book has been around for thirty years and, after devouring it, I can understand why!

Words of Wisdom in the Most Unlikely Places

June 25, 2015

Graffiti is visual pollution, right? Not always. The other day, I was walking along the Erie Canal when I spotted the white-painted words on the underside of a bridge spanning the water that read, “They Say It’s Lonely at the Top”. My first thought was “I’d like the chance to find that out for myself!” But, as I considered it further I realized that, with my seven-year career as a freelance writer, being on top isn’t really an issue for me anymore. Yes, there are times where I mutter and sputter to myself that I will never be a “real” writer, at least not until I publish a book. This most often occurs after a party in which countless people approach me and ask me if I’m “still writing”. The next question is always “What are you writing?” or “Who are you writing for?” and their faces inevitably fall when I name my local newspaper or the regional magazines my articles frequently appear in. It almost seems like if you aren’t writing for Time or Newsweek or on the New York Times Best Seller list, you don’t count as a writer.

In my heart I know that this simply isn’t true. The pieces I write are about people, places, and events that I’m interested in and each one receives the same attention to detail and accuracy and the careful editing as those of the writers who are considered by others to be at the pinnacle of success. The reality is, when all is said and done, would I rather have written hundreds of well-researched, passionate, and thought-provoking pieces for smaller magazines with large readerships or one mediocre novel that barely sells? Where else but in smaller publications with open-minded editors could I immerse myself in topics as diverse as Mormons, a Dairy Cow Birthing Center, local politics, spiedies, or glamping, all in one year?

This isn’t to say that I won’t ever write a book. My point is that it’s important to keep in mind that the writing life is all about the process; the detective-like research, the in-depth interviews, and the endless polishing until you have a piece of writing you can be truly proud of. Why be lonely at the top when you can enjoy humanity in general, and your work in particular, right there in the middle? I don’t know about you but that works just fine for me!


Different Voices for the Same Change

June 17, 2015

I just returned from a trip to Boston where I had the opportunity to learn more about two influential men, similar in some ways, dissimilar in others. My first stop was the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. I think we all enter places like this with certain preconceptions and expectations. The three things that stood out most in my mind about JFK were “The Camelot Era”, his oft-repeated quote, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”, and his unexpected and shocking murder in Dallas. The range of exhibits gave my son and me a much broader picture of Kennedy, as a man and a president. What I came away with was that he was also a relentless campaigner and ruthless political adversary, an author and war hero, and a consummate Kennedy family member, with all the required wealth, education, and good looks. He was also wary of civil rights protests and often avoided making public statements that could be perceived as too bold or divisive, expertly deflecting reporters with humor, his endless charm, and pithy rejoinders.


My next stop was the Museum of African American History, Boston & Nantucket on Joy Street to hear Malcolm X’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, speak at the African Meeting House. Titled, “Growing Up X: Readings and Reflections with the Daughter of Malcolm X.” Shabazz described her father as one of America’s most influential figures, a natural-born leader. Reading from the children’s book she’s written about her father, she explained that Malcolm Little was raised in a household by parents who were socially and politically active in their community which led to them being plagued by intolerance and a series of tragedies. Malcolm had to learn, at a young age, how to be strong and self-reliant. Eventually, as a young man, he joined with the religious leader Elijah Muhammad to become one of the most powerful and charismatic spokespersons for black self-determination during the 1960s. He ultimately became disillusioned with the Nation of Islam and made a pilgrimage to Mecca where he came to believe that America’s racist society as a whole was what needed to be addressed, rather than the actions of particular whites. Though his voice was silenced much too soon, his daughter is carrying on his legacy through her various writings.




To some JFK may seem like an expensive, polished gemstone to Malcolm X’s diamond-in-the-rough. However, the unexpected juxtaposition of these two men in my mind that Thursday afternoon caused me to realize that, though the words they chose to use and the way they delivered their ideas to the public may have been different, their ideologies and life trajectories were not dissimilar. Both were articulate, thoughtful, and well-read. Both were strong and inspirational role models for young people. Both believed that Americans need to take charge of their own destinies and work towards the greater good of society, rather than simply for their own individual gains. And, both were ultimately assassinated for daring to speak out and trying to change the status quo. Their means of addressing inequality may have been different but the outcomes were the same.

JFK Museum

Cutting a Few Corners in Pursuit of Good Writing

June 4, 2015

I began my writing career late in life. I’m over fifty and I don’t have an undergraduate degree in English or Creative Writing or an MFA. Maybe that should deter me. Perhaps I should be more sensible and practical and get a job with a regular paycheck and benefits. But that doesn’t really interest me. Instead, I try to find ways to get around my lack of formal education. After all don’t Americans love the idea of self-taught success stories? The underdog rising up?

I’ve already shared my love for library book sales and the hidden treasures they offer up for mere pennies. And, I’ve told you about my trips onto college campuses to attend any and all free writers’ talks. This summer I found yet another way to learn more about the craft of writing from the “experts”. My youngest son just happens to be a Creative Writing major. Instead of moaning and groaning at the two huge boxes of books he insisted on bringing home from college, I gamely stuffed them into our Cruz. When we got home, I dragged them into the living room and what to my wondering eyes did appear but a plethora of books that today’s college professors are assigning their students! Talk about an opportunity to “double dip”!

I’m almost done with my first book, Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern. I wasn’t enthralled with the title of the book or its first section, which often felt contrived to me, with sub-chapter titles bordering on “cutesy”. The second part got better, especially the portion titled, “Don’t Do This: A Short Guide to What Not to Do” which discussed common errors authors can make. The ones that resonated most with me were:

  • Trying to tell too many stories in one novel. Here, Stern wisely notes that complication isn’t necessarily the same as complexity.
  • Becoming moralistic and preachy, rather than allowing readers to draw their own conclusions from how your characters act and feel
  • Thinking “This is fiction so I don’t have to fact-check or do much research”

However, it’s the last chapter, where Stern finally seems to hit his stride, that’s making the book a worthwhile read. “From Accuracy to Zigzag: An Alphabet for Writers of Fiction” offers definitions for common writing terms as well as insightful tips and excellent suggestions. A sampling of concepts you’ll find there includes:

  • Allusion
  • Names of characters and settings
  • Profanity
  • Psychic Distance
  • Resolution

If you want to learn about these and more, you’ll have to read the book yourself! I realize that not everyone has a Creative Writing student or MFA scholar in their family to utilize. But don’t let that stop you. Figure out a way to get ahold of a college writing class syllabus and start working your way through it. This is guaranteed to save you time and energy. Rather than standing in a large, overwhelming bookstore or library wondering where to start, you can confidently stroll to the Reference section and begin to read or make your purchase. You can also keep checking my blog for regular reviews of my summer reading!

Got a favorite writing book? I’d love to hear about it!

The Opposite of Anticipation

May 16, 2015

Most of us know that life can often change in a heartbeat. Three weeks ago, my blog post was optimistically entitled, “Living a Life Full of Anticipation”. April had been an excellent month for me. I had lots of interesting assignments and people to interview. I entered several short stories which I felt really good about in contests and I had finally mastered Twitter. I was feeling confident and happy in my writing life and looking forward to a well-deserved, and hopefully less hectic, summer. Then the axe fell.

A childhood friend who had been heroically battling cancer for five years succumbed to it within a two-week period and both his passing and the funeral service were heartbreaking. I received three rejection letters in a row for my stories and an email informing me that I didn’t get into the summer writing conference I’d optimistically applied to. In the midst of all this, we had to drive ten hours to Indiana and back to retrieve our youngest from college, throwing my normal work schedule off-kilter and forcing me to scramble to meet deadlines.

It’s extremely hard to feel like a failure on so many levels. I try telling myself that this is what separates the wheat from the chaff, but somehow I can’t bring myself to care about whether I’m wheat or not. I’m just too emotionally and physically exhausted. I contemplate spending the day in bed but the thought of lying immobile with only my racing thoughts for company isn’t particularly appealing. So I drag myself to my green corduroy chair with a cup of coffee and pick up my journal to write my morning pages. I give myself three simple goals each day.

  • Get up
  • Dress up
  • Show up

For days that require something extra, I add

  • Pick up (your pen)
  • Grow up
  • (Don’t) Give up

Age and experience have taught me that things will get better eventually and that writing will help that process. When times are challenging you can try to work through the forces that assail you by writing about them in a journal, a personal essay, or a poem. Or you can use your writing to escape reality, to take a break from the pain and despair and sadness in the real world by escaping to a fictitious one where you alone are in control of all the outcomes. Words are our friend. They will always be there when we need them most. It’s up to us how we choose to use them.

Living a Life Full of Anticipation

April 22, 2015

One of the best parts of reading short stories is the anticipation. Admit it! When you open the first page (or turn on your Kindle or Nook) aren’t you looking forward to what you might learn, about yourself and others, from the story’s characters and their adventures and mishaps? What does anticipation feel like to you? For me, it’s a quickening of my heartbeat, a sharp intake of breath, or a lightness in my step. Emotionally, it’s a feeling of hope, of optimism, of barely suppressed excitement and, ultimately, a quiet sense of peace and satisfaction.

To write the kind of stories that give your readers a sense of anticipation, you have to allow yourself to experience it firsthand so you understand how it can build and reward you with its pleasurable sensations. Those of us who live in the land of four seasons will find this easy because each season brings new delights for us to anticipate. Take spring, for example. Each day as I walk around Trumansburg or drive to Ithaca or Rochester, I see signs of good things to come. When the winter fences and blockades come down from around the Rim Trail I shout “Yes!” and pump my fist in the air. I’m already anticipating how wonderful it will feel, physically and mentally, to resume my long hikes there and how my muscles and mind will soon become flexible again with my regular tromps through the woods.

Hitting the trail!

When I see farmers plowing their fields, I lick my lips lightly, already savoring the taste of just-picked strawberries, cherry tomatoes off the vine, and corn-on-the-cob. When I see campers appear at Taughannock and Sampson State Parks, a smile comes to my face as a vision of my tent, with me in it, and images of past camping trips fill my mind. I’m anticipating long days at the ocean or the pond, nights filled with s’mores and campfires, and strolling through Provincetown. I usually wonder how I will be ever be able to wait three more months until I can get in my car and head east!

Head of the Meadows Beach at Cape Cod

Not every story you write will be happy or jubilant. Nor will everything you anticipate be as good as you hope. But looking forward to things is an important part of a well-balanced life and a little bit of this goes a long way toward making your world a more colorful one. Try adding a little anticipation to your stories and your own daily existence and you might be amazed at the results!

Be Yourself on Paper-The College Essay

April 17, 2015

Guest Post by Lucia Tyler,  Ph.D., Tyler Admissions Consulting

Dr. Lucia Tyler

Dr. Lucia Tyler (photo credit-Jim Mason)

Students dread the college essay. Why?  Often they have not reflected on their life or practiced writing about it.  This is the perfect opportunity to show a college who you are beyond the numbers—beyond the test scores and the GPA. In a way, it’s like a one question interview on paper. This is an opportunity to show the human side of your application.  The object is not to impress but to be memorable.  Think about the stories in your family that are repeatedly told.  In my family, they are either usually funny, sad, or scary. For instance, there was the time that my son tried to rewire the TV set….. at age 10.

Getting started is often the hardest part.  Story-telling is key to the process.  It can be helpful to review meaningful incidents in your life and relate them to a family member. “Remember the time that I got separated from the family on vacation in Mexico and found my way back to the hotel alone with my minimal Spanish?”  You might ask a friend or family member to tell a memorable story about you if you can’t think of one.  Sometimes it even helps to record these stories or write notes about them.

Reading essays that Ivy League students have written for publication in a book of winning essays may be discouraging and actually delay you from beginning your essay.  How can you compete with a Harvard student who graduated with honors while living with drug addicted parents?  This is your story to tell and that’s what colleges want to hear.

The Common Application has a general essay that is submitted to all schools.  You need to relate your essay to one of the prompts provided.  If you choose a topic describing an environment where you feel comfortable and then talk about how your sister loves to go rock-climbing with her friends, the reader will note that you didn’t respond to the prompt.

Key points to remember about the essay are to tell your story, use a conversational style, answer the prompt, and proofread the essay carefully for errors.

I’m always willing to consider guest posts related to writing for my blog. I’m also interested in posting about writing issues on your blogs. Either way-feel free to get in touch!

Boris Fishman’s Tips for a Successful Writing Life

April 15, 2015

I had the good fortune to hear Boris Fishman (A Replacement Life) speak at Writers & Books in Rochester the other night. I always find published writers’ talks helpful in terms of learning about concrete steps I can take to improve my writing and to plan for future creative endeavors. Boris was a lively and informative speaker who didn’t pull any punches.

Boris Fishman at Writers and Books

Boris Fishman at Writers & Books


Here are a few things I learned from him about the writing process:

  • Treat your writing like the job it is, not just something you do in your spare time. Create a work schedule where you read and write for a specific amount of hours each day.
  • Eavesdrop shamelessly! This will help you immeasurably with perfecting different styles of dialogue.
  • A high-concept title is crucial to the success of your novel.
  • Sometimes it can take a really long time to write your novel. Boris wrote six drafts on his own and then several more with his agent’s help before he was finally published.
  • Attend writing conferences that are in an intimate setting with a focus on craft, rather than large “writing-lite” symposiums.

Boris also talked to us about his journey down the path to publication. Some tips I found most helpful were:

  • It helps if you can exhibit some familiarity with the publication, agent, or editor you’re submitting to. You can show this by saying something meaningful about them or their publication in your query or by showing how your idea dovetails with their mission or goals. It’s not the subject matter of your book that matters as much as having an “editorial affinity” or other professionals who care about the same things you do.
  • Persistence often pays off. According to Boris, you should send a minimum of five queries to an editor before giving up and you need to become indifferent to rejection. (As a side note, I’ve frequently heard that men are often better at ignoring rejection than women who tend to give up submitting after only two tries).
  • Establishing an online presence is a must! Boris recommends a website, creating an author page on Facebook, and joining the Twitterverse. He explains that readers love feeling live they’ve been part of the process with you and that most publishers are huge fans of Twitter. Boris also uses email blasts and makes it a point to write back to anyone who contacts him.  He urges writers to “own” their successes and triumphs, by saying things like “Hey guys, I have great news” instead of using what he calls “humble brag” on all their social media sites.
  • Most importantly, he says, detach your sense of self-worth from the commercial success of your book. Once you transition from “Please like me” to “I don’t care if you like me or not” you will become a better writer. Though it can be difficult, remember, you have the right to write your story the way you want to.


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