The Writers' Loop

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It’s the Possibility that Makes Life Interesting!

By Peggy Morehouse

A frightening topic Matthew Walker addresses in his book, Adventure in Everything, is low endeavor living. It involves things like staying with an unsatisfying job and mindless Internet surfing; activities that are easy, risk-free, and non-stimulating. Basically, plodding through life without direction until we realize it’s almost over.  Walker states, “The most that many of us can wish for is to move through the tedium of our day and then spend the evening fantasizing about a more exciting world we don’t expect to ever know.” Walker supports his statement by referencing an article by Jeannine Aversa in The Seattle Times, “Only 45% of Americans are satisfied with their work.”

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And Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse and author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, revealed that the number one regret of dying patients was letting dreams go unfulfilled.

A sad revelation as far as I’m concerned. Why aren’t more people abandoning low endeavor living for its opposite, high endeavor living? Walker describes a purposeful existence as setting “a goal that’s worthy of our energy, love, and passion.” It sounds wonderful, even romantic. Who wouldn’t trade a Netflix binge in for energy, love, and passion? Matt blames fear, and if fear doesn’t stop us, concern about everything that’s projected onto us by others when embarking on a change might. As he states, “We become afraid of what other people might say behind our backs if we leave our cushy job at a law firm to write articles about fishing.”

The bottom line is, it’s not that simple to step out of a monotonous life and into an exciting new one. Fortunately there’s something between the beginning and the end. It’s called the journey and that’s where all the juicy stuff happens. As Steve Jobs said:

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What are some steps Walker suggests to ignite an adventurous journey:

  • A high endeavor pursuit will cause a fundamental shift in your life…give yourself permission to find this shift.
  • Select your high endeavor using this formula: activity you enjoy + activity you enjoy + activity you enjoy = high endeavor. For me: writing fiction + spending time in nature + socializing = A writers camp at Esalen, Big Sur, California next summer. Yup! My sense of passion is stoked when I think about that.
  •  If you want to pursue a high endeavor, but aren’t sure what it is, call on your imagination. Bring your journal to a place of inspirational beauty. Write about whatever you want for 15 minutes. Stop to re-acquaint yourself with your surroundings then write for another 15 minutes (stream-of-consciousness writing is addressed in the Introduction of Adventure in Everything). Whether it’s the first time or tenth time you do this, inspirational ideas will eventually emerge.
  • Begin with the possible – Let’s say I don’t have the money to fly out to California for a writing camp at Esalen next summer (Darn!). Do I go on that Netflix binge instead? Or, do I look for a writing camp in a natural environment that’s within driving distance? I think you know the answer to that question (although there is a place for a Netflix binge during summer vacation).
  • Perceived Risk/Actual Risk – This addresses that pesky fear issue. You’ve figured out what your high endeavor is, but you freeze when you’re about to delve in. For example, let’s say I saved enough money to go to that writers’ camp in Big Sur. I’m about to register and book a flight. A fright attack stops me. What if I get there and don’t connect with anyone? What if it rains the entire time? What if there’s an earthquake? What if I have writer’s block? What if I write terribly and embarrass myself during sharing time? What if I break my leg right before the trip? Spending my entire summer on a Netflix binge is sounding better and better. At this point I need to make my perceived risk/actual risk list. As any logical person can decipher, most of the fears that stopped me from taking my high endeavor adventure are unlikely, although possible. Certainly denying myself an adventure is far more risky. If I let fear win, I may just start answering my phone like this:

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Other avenues Walker discusses to help us find our high endeavor adventure include: writing a short autobiography; creating a list of values that you may aspire to embody in any activity or task that you participate in; writing another autobiography as if you’d lived to be 80 or 90 years old (I’m definitely doing this assignment); tell at least one person about your adventure; and writing a letter of commitment to yourself.

Yes. There is quite a bit  of valuable information packed into chapter one, High Endeavor. Once you select your high endeavor, it’s time to move onto element two: Uncertain Outcome, which we’ll discuss here next Sunday.

Do you have an idea of what your high endeavor is? Some of you have already shared this, but if you haven’t we’d love to hear about it in the comment section.

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An Evening With Piper Kerman: Orange Shoes and Lemonade?

 

By Susanne Marie Poulette

There’s an old overused proverb that we may have grown tired of hearing, but on Monday evening, September 22, at lemonadethe Clifton Park-Halfmoon Library, I witnessed the personification of making lemonade when life gives you lemons.  I also saw what I’m calling  the alchemy of writing—that confluence of heart and mind, tears and joy, life embodied in the written word, and how writing can change one’s life.

Piper Kerman, author of best selling memoir Orange Is The New Black: My Year in a 6314763Women’s Prison  presented her story before a maximum capacity audience.  By a show of hands, a number of attendees had read her book, and many more had seen the  critically acclaimed Netflix series adaptation.  On that evening Kerman’s own voice carried  us through the journey that led to her felony conviction and a 13- month sentence in a  women’s prison.

As I listened to Piper’s personal narrative, I noticed two pivotal junctures emerge, first the lemons, and then the lemonade.

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The Lemons     

When Piper Kerman turned herself in at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, she was looking at a 15- month sentence in a plea deal for a non-violent conviction of money laundering that she had committed ten years earlier.  Knowing only what she had read about prison life, she arrived there in great fear of the unknown and of the possibility of experiencing violence.  She was “processed in” by intimidating guards and transformed from Piper Kerman to a new, dehumanizing identity, inmate number 11187424.  Placed in the general population, she was forced to quickly learn and follow the prison rules, as well as the prisoner rules, “go along to get along” in order to survive the duration of her sentence.

The Lemonade                                                                                                                                                                             

A Smith College graduate, Piper Kerman writes a moving account of her prison experience, of taking responsibility for her actions and paying the consequences.  In the process, she also identifies and vividly articulates the need for reform of our criminal justice system. She explained the reason for writing her memoir:  so that those who would not otherwise read a book about life in prison can learn about the people who become incarcerated.  Who are they? What led them there? What are the intentionally well-hidden realities of life in prison?  Piper’s memoir and the Netflix series teach us that many prisoners today are women, and many are mothers of minor children.  She described a startling statistic. There has been an 800 % increase in women’s incarceration in the last 30 years, nearly twice the rate of increase in male prisoners.  Close to 85% of the women incarcerated in New York State are there for non-violent crimes, with wide disparity in sentence lengths along socioeconomic and racial lines.

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Piper discussed several themes about life in a women’s prison including: the inequities of race and class; motherhood and pregnancy behind bars; gender power and predominance of male guards; and friendship and empathy among the prisoners. She spoke with tenderness in describing the impact of her fellow prisoners’ friendship and empathy.  Among their kindnesses was the phenomenon of their “welcome wagon” extended to new prisoners by offering essentials such as toothpaste or soap; items that are not provided and must be earned by inmates.  They gave advice and comforting words that each day would be a little bit better.  One woman who loved to draw made each new prisoner a special name tag to post as required on inmates’ bunks.  Kerman displayed a slide photo of the name tag made especially for her, and explained how those kindnesses touched her.

“…I believe that empathy, or lack of empathy lies at the heart of every crime, and that is certainly true for my own crime.  Back in 1992, 1993, I was not thinking about the impact my actions would have on other people.  I wasn’t thinking all that seriously about the consequences for myself, …or the harm that I would bring my family, and frankly, the fact that my actions would be furthering other people’s substance abuse and addictions…My empathy was not working well.  So, I make this point because my friendships with the women that I met in prison, many of them,… their lives have been terribly impacted by substance abuse and addiction…lives and health devastated… relationships with their children frayed…It was my friendships with those women that made me truly comprehend the harm of my own actions. And for that I am deeply, deeply grateful, not just for their friendship and kindness and that sort of shared survival, but for that incredibly important recognition of the impact of my own actions, and why our actions matter so much, even though the results may be far away from us.”

september 24 006It seems to me that Piper Kerman’s lemonade is more than the closure of that painful chapter of her life, more than the success of her best selling book and the Netflix series, and more than the celebrity it has brought her.  She transcends an unfortunate life-changing experience through writing.  I suggest that her real lemonade is her public platform for criminal justice reform and her potential to effect changes in the lives of prisoners during and after incarceration, enacting “common sense sentencing,” and reducing recidivism.

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Piper closed her presentation by telling what she wants for everyone in the prison system:

“To be judged not only for their worst day and their worst choice, but also for their best days and their best choices.”

To learn more about Piper Kerman and her advocacy for criminal justice reform:

Piper’s website lists her reform activities:      http://piperkerman.com/

She serves on the board of the Women’s Prison Association.   http://www.wpaonline.org/

She has been called as a witness by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights to testify on solitary confinement and women prisoners.  View the video at: http://piperkerman.com/videos

Justice Reform Organizations: http://piperkerman.com/justice-reform/justice-reform-organizations

WPA’s 2nd Chances Campaign, to view a video series of personal second chance stories: http://2ndchancescampaign.org/


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The Adventure Begins With a Single Breath

by Peggy Morehouse

Sometimes I skip the introduction section of a book; forego the preview and delve into the beginning. I’m glad I didn’t do that with our book club selection, Adventure in Everything by Matthew Walker. There is so much good stuff packed into the Introduction that it’s impossible for me to discuss everything in a less than 1,000 word blog post. So, your homework is to review elements discussed such as, the beginner’s mind, journaling, and adventure stories. I’d like to focus on a breathing exercise described: push your problems away, close your eyes, and focus on your breath for 15 seconds.

It sounds simple enough, but many people find it difficult to go beyond five seconds without a sneaky thought popping in. Breathing while maintaining a clear mind takes practice, and according to Matt, “It’s the very first step in finding Adventure in Everything you do…to focus completely and entirely on the task at hand, rather than the actions of other people and the world beyond.”

The first step is to just breathe. Easy, right? We were able to do it the second we were born without instruction. In fact, the first time I recall formally thinking about breathing was when I exercised along with Jane Fonda and her fitness fanatics through video in the late 1970’s. Jane would shout out, “Don’t forget to breathe,” as she guided viewers into shape.

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I remember saying, Duh, Jane! Thanks for keeping me alive. Like I needed her to remind me to inhale and exhale. Now that I’m older and wiser, I realize she meant you’re probably holding your breath as you try to lift your leg as high as mine. If you keep breathing your movements will be more fluid.

The second time the breath made a formal appearance was when I was in graduate school studying to become a speech-language pathologist. I  learned that respiration was not only our primary life force, but provided the energy for speech. A full abdominal breath was the starting point for many successful stuttering treatment programs and breathing exercises were an essential therapy component for neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. I began to have more respect for breathing not only because I was learning about the complex anatomy and physiology involved, but realized that it had healing power.

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The third time was when I was twenty-nine-years-old and pregnant for the first time. I enrolled in Lamaze class where techniques utilizing several breathing patterns in order to encourage relaxation were taught. Let’s just say I should have paid better attention.

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Now that I am practicing yoga I truly understand how the breath can enhance the human experience. Life energy (prana) enters the body through the breath and is sent to every cell through the circulatory system. Although there are many types of yogic breathing, the traditional full yoga breath  when employed on a regular basis has the power to dramatically reduce emotional and nervous anxiety, calm the mind, and integrate the mental/physical balance, release muscular tension, just to name a few benefits.

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Position for Yoga Breathing

 We’ve established in past posts that fear accompanies new adventures. Fear causes us to tense up and we will most likely hold our breath in those moments, stopping the energy flow. For example, the adventure I will focus on is taking my second novel to publication. I’ve hired a top-notch editor and my manuscript is due to her by December 15. My fears include: I won’t have it ready on time; I’m wasting my money; novel two isn’t very good; the publishing industry is too competitive; and on and on. What do you think happens to my writing as these thoughts pass through my mind?

You guessed it!

Writers block.

During these insecurity attacks I need to practice the 15-second breathing technique: Clear my mind and focus on my breath, then keep it flowing. Magic! Confidence is re-instated and the words soon follow.

“Breathing helps us let go of whatever stories we’ve created based on our own insecurities, and ground ourselves in our own reality. Each time we’re confronted by a situation beyond our control, we can come back to the breath. When we do so, we’re one step closer to following our dreams.” ~ Matthew Walker 

If you read the Introduction of Adventure in You, please share something that you feel will help you.

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Sniffing Out a Good Book

By SUSANNE MARIE POULETTE

sniffer dogSeptember 13th was a chilly, rainy Saturday, but that didn’t stop patrons of The Open Door, Schenectady New York’s locally owned, independent bookseller since 1971.  Inside the shop, the tone was sunny and cozy as author Nancy Castaldo greeted readers and signed books.  A warm sense of community pervaded the bookstore while folks of all ages flowed in and out, meeting the author, chatting, browsing, reading, making their purchases, and then popping umbrellas open and stepping back into Jay Street’s raindrops.

Nancy Castaldo’s current book, Sniffer Dogs: How Dogs (and Their Noses) Save the World, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is a nonfiction children’s book for ages ten to fourteen.  In Sniffer Dogs, we learn how detection dogs are able to use their noses to locate missing people, disaster victims, explosives, and illegal drugs, just to name a few from a long and specialized list.  Although this book is written for children, I’m fascinated with the stories of these courageous and diligent canine heroes, and I’ve fallen in love with the full color photos capturing these dogs at work, at rest, and at those precise moments of intensity when they alert handlers to a find.

Nancy Castaldo blended her biology and chemistry studies with her passion for writing and photography into a successful literary career and author of children’s books about science and animals.  She writes to inspire kids to make their own discoveries and explore the world around them.  Her books include Sunny Days and Starry Nights, Rainy Day Play, Winter Day Play, Oceans, Deserts, Rainforests, River Wild, Pizza For The Queen, Leap into Space, and Keeping the Earth Green.  Nancy lives in the New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband, daughter, and a huge English Goldendoodle named Gatsby.september 2014 sniffer dogs and more 024

 

Nancy graciously agreed to discuss her writing with The Writers’ Loop:

SMP: The cover photo of Sniffer Dogs is delightfully eye catching, and inside, the images are beautiful with very appealing overall design. How much of the photography is your own, and how closely did you work with an art director?

NC:  Thank you. The designer on Sniffer Dogs, Rachel Newborn, was fantastic to work with. The majority of the photos in Sniffer Dogs are mine, but the photo of our cover dog, Tucker is not. I took photos throughout the research of the book and then submitted them with the final manuscript. Rachel took it from there to develop the eye-catching, kid friendly book design. It was wonderful to see the text and illustrations flow together so well. It was so much fun to photograph the dogs as I met them. They were the perfect subjects!

SMP:  When you wrote this book, did you start with a subtopic, for example, a type of sniffer dog, and then obtain photos to illustrate it, or did you start with particular photo that inspired you to further research and writing?

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NC: The stories of the conservation canines inspired this book. As I began to research each type of sniffer dog, I connected with various handlers and arranged to meet the dogs and photograph them. Some of the dogs have passed on or were unable to meet.

 

SMP:  Can you describe your writing routine or process?

NC: I write everyday. I use a white board to plot out most of my nonfiction books before I begin them. It’s easy to get lost in the research – it’s so much fun. At some point I know it’s time to start writing. Of course, with all books there is research that continues as I write. I usually write one chapter at a time and follow the path on my white board.

SMP:  You’re a very well published author.  The road to publication is fraught with bumps and ruts for so many writers.  Please tell about your experience in publishing your work.

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NC: Publishing is a business. Writing is an art. Authors need to combine both. They need to continually improve their craft and listen to the advice of their editors and critique buddies. They need to constantly read. They also need to keep up with the market and be persistent. I’ve been fortunate to have a dedicated critique group of fellow children’s authors for support and advice for over ten years. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, an international organization, has also been a tremendous resource for me. They not only supply publishing news and info, but also offer authors a supportive, engaging community.

SMP: It seems that you have a genuine interest in engaging and inspiring young readers, writers, and scientists!  Your website lists assembly and classroom presentations that you offer to connect with children in schools.  Would you tell about your these visits and the students’ reactions to your program?

NC:  School and library visits are so much fun. Students inspire me and I hope I inspire them. Kids have the ability to make a difference in our world and I want to empower them with my visit. Through presentations on the path to publication and what it is like being an author, to workshops on research and how it can shape a book, I work to engage students and encourage them to think of their own work.september 2014 sniffer dogs and more 026

SMP:  What will be your next project?

NC: I’m currently working on a book on seeds that will also include my photographs. The research for this book has taken me to some very interesting places, including California and Russia.

 

SMP:  Do you have advice for budding authors, young or old?

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NC: I think the best advice I can offer is to read! Reading books is the gateway to writing. It helps us develop our skills and recognize terrific sentences, plots, dialog, and characters.  It’s also helpful to join a group of fellow writers. And check out SCBWI for lots of great resources and conferences if you are an aspiring children’s author.

Thank you, Nancy Castaldo for your interview and your wonderful book about sniffer dogs!

For more information about the author and her books: http://nancycastaldo.com/

To learn more about Nancy’s author visits and presentations in the schools and for adults: http://nancycastaldo.com/speaking/

For more about Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, http://www.scbwi.org/

Search Dog Foundation: http://searchdogfoundation.org/

Open Door

To learn more, sign up for a newsletter, or to check out coming events at The Open Door:  http://www.opendoor-bookstore.com/


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An Adventurous Interview with Matthew Walker

By Peggy Morehouse

I have an excellent job working as a speech-language pathologist for a school district. It’s important work, I enjoy my students, have great colleagues, and it offers wonderful benefits. I’m aware that many people can’t make that statement and am genuinely grateful that I can. A problem occurred a few years ago, however. You see, I’ve been earning my living in this profession for a long time and I was bored. I don’t like being bored. Bored looks like this:

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I didn’t want to go to work everyday looking like a bear who missed hibernation, and it certainly wasn’t fair to my school district.

What to do?

Quit my job and become a full-time novelist? At the time I was making about fifty dollars a month as a writer. I do like food, shelter, and an occasional glass of wine so that was out.

I could look for another job, but there was so much good about my position. Even the sluggish bear in me knew that it would be really hard to find something better, and regret might be worse than boredom.

I could traipse through my workdays with as much enthusiasm as possible and look forward to exciting weekends and vacation activities. I could tell a lot of people had chosen this option when they became dissatisfied with their jobs by the expressions they wore while waiting for an energizing morning cup of coffee.

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Or…I could go to my supervisor and propose a change within my job. A change that would benefit the district, students, and teachers. A change that I found stimulating. And that’s exactly what I did. I’m not going into the details now, but you’ll learn more as we discuss Adventure in Everything by Matthew Walker over the next five Sundays. The bottom line is my proposal was accepted and my vocation became invigorating once again. As I read Adventure in Everything, I realized that my new project had all five elements of adventure that Matt discussed in his book. They are:

  • A High Endeavor
  • Uncertain Outcome
  • Making a Total Commitment
  • Tolerance for Adversity
  • Great Companionship

Over the next few weeks you’ll have the opportunity to embark on an adventure you’ve only dreamed about as we read Adventure in Everything. It can be new hobby, a class you’d like to take, an outdoor expedition, a story you’d like to write, even a new relationship you may be considering. Anything that excites you. We’ll go over the Five Elements right here and help you get started.

Now I’m going to let the adventure expert himself take over. Matthew Walker was kind enough to answer a few questions about beginning an adventure for The Writers’ Loop. First, a bit about Matt:

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Matthew Walker

Matthew Walker stands for adventure – adventure in everything (and anything) in your life. Matt is more than a world-class mountain climber and psychologist; his real world experience, systems awareness, and deep understanding of the human experience make him a sought after coach, speaker, and professional facilitator. His Tucson based company, Inner Passage, facilitates once-in-a-lifetime adventures, coaches individuals to reach their personal and professional goals, and offers team development workshops. He is author of the book, Adventure in Everything, published by Hay House.

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According to Matt, “Embracing life as an adventure is the greatest gift we can give ourselves. When we embrace life as an adventure, we tap into a deep source of energy, love, creativity, and generosity. And while on an expedition all sorts of crazy things can happen, but how we respond to those challenges and successes, how we engage with our partners and teammates, and how we take care of our personal and physical health all impact the shape of the journey. I believe this perspective also allows for a significant amount of grace in our lives, for forgiveness and for failure. We can experience negative and challenging moments, but build from them with awareness as we continue on the expedition.”

Question:  How did you come up with the idea for Adventure in Everything and the Five Elements of adventure?

Matt: “It started on Mt. McKinley in Alaska, the highest peak in North America. While on an expedition to the summit, which takes about 25 days, I was cold and miserable, and scared as hell – the clients even more so. But we were all also incredibly alive – infused with the vitality and a strong sense of purpose, highly aware of the consequences of our actions, undeniably a critical member of a team, and filled with accomplishment at even the small, daily progress we made ascending the mountain. I spent a lot of time thinking, what is the best way to take the lessons learned from here and apply them to our everyday lives?

I returned home from this expedition with fire inside me and spent the next couple of years interviewing others, discussing the qualities that make up the best adventures, and researching best practices to create and maintain an authentic presence. I decided along  the way that I needed to deepen my own understanding of the human experience and went to graduate school for a Master’s in behavioral science. Combined, these experiences all led to the creation of the Five Elements and Adventure in Everything.”

Question: Many people dream of beginning an adventure but something stops them. What do you think that “something” is? How can they get past it?

Matt: “I think the largest impediment is that the goal feels too big and overwhelming at the beginning. It is incredibly difficult to imagine climbing Mt. Everest when standing in the valley below. Yet, from Base Camp you set off for the first camp and use the skills and tools you have honed in other mountain ranges. It becomes another mountain; familiar. The same thing happens to us in other arenas of our lives. The goal is difficult to comprehend from a distance, but up close it gains clarity as a series of steps.”

Question: What are some of the fears you experienced when beginning your adventure either with mountaineering, starting Inner Passages, or graduate school?

Matt: “The same self-doubts everyone experiences: am I good enough? Can I do this? What if I can’t meet the expectations I have for myself or others have of me? Other people with more skill and knowledge succeed at this, but not me…the narrative goes on and on. I have found the best way to handle the fear and self-doubt is to parse out the experience into manageable and measurable parts. Doing this gives me a sense of growth and success – literally a day at a time.”

Question:  Is failure to be expected? Is there a time to persevere and a time to quit?

Matt: “
Failure in the traditional sense is certainly a possible, and frequent, outcome. Adventure is not synonymous with the summit. Adventure is an opportunity to live life in a space of full commitment with our core values engaged. The outcome is unknown and the rewards unexpected.”

Question: How important is journaling when embarking on an adventure?

Matt: “I find journaling an amazingly helpful and underrated tool. Journaling allows for a slow and paced interaction with your thoughts and feelings. It’s an opportunity to “dump” the narrative out of your head and onto paper thereby freeing up the anxiety, doubt, and problem solving our minds are accustomed to and gives us space to clarify and move towards peace and balance. Plus, it’s simple and free.”

Question: Any additional advice for people as they begin?

Matt: “I recommend starting locally with close friends or family. Note the opportunities nearby that you are curious about or intrigue you. Start small, start locally, and engage with friends. I would also highly recommend going “offline” for the day. Make being unplugged is part of the experience and allow yourself to be present to the experience without distraction or influence from others.”

Thanks Matthew Walker!  

Please share a little about an “adventure” you’re considering with us in the comment section.

Next Sunday, September 21, we’ll explore the five elements of adventure.

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The Elusive Butterfly of Voice?

By SUSANNE MARIE POULETTEblue_morpho_butterfly_189907 Lately I’ve been in a bit of a quandary about the writer’s voice.  Does it elude anyone else, or am I alone with this one?  We usually define the spoken voice as audible sound produced when vocal cords interact with an exhaled airstream.  Considering it from my profession in speech pathology, voice encompasses objective, tangible parameters, such as pitch or loudness.  There it is, a short, clean explanation, and we have a decent idea what spoken voice is.

But what is written voice?  Folks seem to know, but don’t define it very well.  Before I started writing my novel, I did my research, reading what authors, agents, editors, and English professors said about the writer’s voice.  I discussed it in my writers’ group, and on my own, I followed prompts to add voice into otherwise voiceless passages—futile for this writer.  I always thought of the writer’s voice as point of view—first, third, or whatever person grammar, and of style, tone, and how I express my characters’ personalities in words.

My confusion came when I began my search for a literary agent. I sifted through about a million literary agents’ websites looking for a good match between my manuscript and the qualities they wanted.  What were they looking for?  Other than the scholarly work of a genius, what indispensable common denominator kept popping up?  Yes, voice.

Let me back up momentarily for those who may not be privy to how the publication process works (unless you’d like to self-publish, which is another story).  I jumped into writing my novel without realizing these facts: To snag a publisher, you first need to get a literary agent on board who likes your book well enough to work john twith you and try to sell it to the aforementioned publisher.  Think of it this way: a theater/dance major can’t just go into a Broadway producer’s office and hop through a number from Saturday Night Fever and immediately bag a chorus line spot in a new musical.  That dancer needs an agent. I know the feeling.

I can’t speak to the requirements for landing a dancing gig, but I do know that literary agents have a language all their own when clarifying what they look for in their next best seller.  This is where I get tripped up, on the many adjectives that agents use to describe that epitome of excellent writing and its indispensable foundation, voice.  Maybe you can determine differences in how these coveted writing voices would sound in your head.  Let’s try just a few:  authentic voice (I see this a lot), electric voice, strong voice (very popular), unique voice, fresh and distinct voice, voice-driven, voice to fall in love with, voice to champion, and fresh voice (also very popular). Any luck?

I can locate agents who seek manuscripts in my genre, including my type of story and setting, but I find it difficult to define my voice with the descriptors listed above.  I really don’t know what in this wide world they’re talking about, never mind trying to emulate any one of them.  I don’t see much precision in these descriptions, do you?  How do I know if I’m lucky enough to have one of those voices?

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So, I went back to the experts for some enlightenment, and I may have found the Holy Grail of Voice.

First, there’s Donald Maass’ excellent book, Writing the Breakout Novel.  It’s chock full of essential elements that successful novels share, writing techniques and useful examples from the work of best selling authors.  Maass dedicates three pages specifically to voice in clear terminology:

“What the heck is ‘voice’? By this, do editors mean “style”? I do not think so. By voice, I think they mean not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre. They want to read an author who is like no other. An original. A standout. A voice.

How can you develop your voice? To some extent it happens all by itself. Stories come from girl writingthe subconscious. What drives you to write, to some extent, are your own unresolved inner conflicts. Have you noticed your favorite authors have character types that recur? Plot turns that feel familiar? Descriptive details that you would swear you have read before (a yellow bowl, a slant of light, an inch of cigarette ash)? That is the subconscious at work.

…You can facilitate voice by giving yourself the freedom to say things in your own unique way. You do not talk exactly like anyone else, right? Why should you write like everyone else?…

…To set your voice free, set your words free. Set your characters free. Most important, set your heart free. It is from the unknowable shadows of your subconscious that your stories will find their drive and from which they will draw their meaning. No one can loan that or teach you that. Your voice is your self in the story.”

Now, that’s something that I can work with, how about you?

I found the next one not only helpful but also encouraging.  It’s by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall, co-authors of Finding Your Writer’s Voice:

“Every writer has a natural voice, and every natural voice has its own way of telling a story. It has its own rhythm, pace, sense of detail, anecdote, and—if allowed to improvise—this natural voice can discover the story’s content and form. Natural voice is like a finger pointing at the moon, but it isn’t the moon itself. It takes time, patience, and work to refine this voice into a polished voice that can tell a story. But when your natural voice is allowed to lead the way, the result is a story with fire and spirit.”

Lastly, for teachers: Barbara Mariconda, author of children’s books, professional books for teachers, and presenter of programs on writing for teachers, offers Teaching Voice in Writing, on her website:

Creative Writing ClipArt“We’ve all heard teachers talk about “voice” – how a piece of writing somehow has it – or doesn’t. Often referred to as “author’s voice, it is a frequently misunderstood concept, an illusive quality that often seems difficult, if not impossible to teach.  In fact, some people feel that authors are either blessed with the gift of “voice” or not, or they believe that writers can only discover their voice through writing a lot.  While it’s true that consistent practice in the art and craft of writing is a necessity for improvement, it is also true that an understanding and emergence of voice can be nurtured and honed through awareness, discovery and informed teaching.  In other words, teachers can, without a doubt, help in the development of “voice” in their students’ writing.”

The full article is available at http://empoweringwriters.com/teachers-corner/implementation-assistance-faq/tips-and-strategies/teaching-voice-in-writing/ as well as three free lessons for download: “Teaching Voice in Writing,”  “Setting the Tone,” and “Setting the Mood.”

 

quillWhether you’re more of a reader than a writer, or an avid writer, a writing teacher, a journal writer, or if you just stick to emails, texts, and shopping lists, I hope you’ll share your ideas on voice. Feel free to comment on how you found your voice, or if you’re still discovering that lovely elusive butterfly.

 

Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel: http://maassagency.com/books-on-writing/

Frank and Wall’s Finding Your Writer’s Voice: http://thaisafrank.com/new/books_writersvoice.shtml

Writing websites that I find useful:

The Purdue Online Writing Lab:  https://owl.english.purdue.edu/

Wheaton College Writing Resources:  http://www.wheaton.edu/Academics/Services/Writing-Center/Writing-Resources

 

 


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Susan Elizabeth Phillips Brings Fun, Writing Wisdom, & Lollipops to Saratoga!

By Peggy Morehouse

Romance is currently  the largest and best-selling fiction genre in North America. Readers can’t get enough of stories about life’s extraordinary and elusive treasure, love. The magical energy that drives two people together, the obstacles that keep them apart, and characters who would swim across an ocean to reach the shore of a happy ending are all part of the intrigue.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips is a New York Times best-selling author who keeps hearts beating with her dazzling, witty, and romantic tales. Broken engagements, scandals, gorgeous brainy scientists, and quietly seductive jocks are just a few of the elements and characters that can be found in her twenty-one novels. She is the only four-time recipient of the Romance Writers of America prestigious Favorite Book of the Year award. Susan stopped by Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs, New York while on tour for her latest novel, Heroes Are My Weakness.

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“Realistically quirky yet all too relatable characters, polished writing, tart humor, and an abundance of potent sexual chemistry. […] another romance to treasure from one of the genre’s superstars, and proof positive that good things come to those readers who wait.” (Booklist (starred review)

And I must interject, passages like…“He tunneled his dirty hands through her hair and kissed her breathless. Her neck, her eyes, the corners of her mouth. He kissed her lips as if his life depended on it. Kissed their future into her. All they could have and all they could be.”…kept the pages turning as I curled up on my couch with this book one rainy evening.

Not only did Susan bring her new book to read, she brought humor and sense of fun. First, she asked if there were any published authors in the audience and gave them the opportunity to talk about their work. Then like a game show hostess, she displayed a box filled with prizes, which turned out to be lobster soap and lollipops in honor of the Heroes Are My Weakness setting, a remote Maine island in the middle of winter. Susan rewarded those who traveled the furthest for the event with the soap and the lollipops were given to those who correctly answered trivia questions about her novels.

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Susan doesn’t know whether to be honored or scared when a fan told her that she traveled from Illinois to see her. After some chuckles, the fan admitted that she also had some other business in Saratoga, but Susan was certainly a draw.

 

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Susan explains the rules for the trivia game.

After she read a few pages from Heroes Are My Weakness, it was downstairs for a book signing and more laughs.

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Before Susan’s presentation she graciously answered a few questions for The Writers’ Loop. Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Peggy:  Heroes Are My Weakness is a bit darker than most of your other novels…

Susan: Yes. I wasn’t conscious of that when I wrote it. I go wherever the story takes me…This is not a trend coming up or a change of direction for me. It’s just what this book dictated because I wanted to do this modern homage to the gothic novel. If you’re going to do that, you’re going to have a suspenseful plot and a sense of danger.

Peggy: It has so many elements of captivating fiction: a dark hero, intrigue, mystery, romance, a lonely cold island, talking puppets, and on and on. Did you have fun writing it?

Susan:    No! I don’t have fun writing anything. I think writing is very fear-based for a lot of authors…We’re convinced that whatever book we’re working on is going to kill our career. Writing is not fun for me as I’m drafting a scene. Once I have something on the screen to work with then I’m happy. Then I love it! That initial process is very nerve-wracking.

Peggy:   So the first draft is the hard part?

Susan:  Yes. I don’t do a first draft all the way through. I write a scene, then I rewrite a scene, then I write the next scene, then I go back and rewrite the first scene and the second scene. Then I write the third scene and go back. It goes on and on. So by the time I’m done with the book, it’s pretty solid. My voice really comes out through the rewriting.

Peggy:  Some authors advise to write the first draft quickly without going back. What do you think?

Susan:  Anybody who tries to tell you how to write a book…All they’re trying to do is tell you how they wrote their book. It really depends on how your brain is wired; how you think, and how you create. You have to find your own process.

Peggy:  You must love writing a little bit because you keep doing it. You’ve written 21 novels.

Susan:  (She laughs) I’m compelled to do it. I love it when I’m writing a scene and all of a sudden it comes together, the dialogue is popping into my head. That’s the reward! I must say, I do love that!

Peggy:  Out of all of your novels which hero did you fall most in love with and why?

Susan:  I fall in love with all of them. If I don’t fall in love with every hero I create, I won’t let the book go out until I do. I have to fall in love with every hero and every heroine, otherwise the book just doesn’t work.

Peggy: So, you’ve really fallen in love with all your heroes?

Susan: Every single one them! (raises her eyebrows) I’m kind of slut! (Makes me laugh!)

Peggy: Is it love at first sight?

Susan: Not at all. Love doesn’t happen in the beginning. It usually takes me about nine months before the characters really start to click.

Peggy: What elements in a romance novel create a page turning sex/love scene?

Susan: It has to reveal something about plot or character otherwise it’s not interesting. For me, it has to move the story forward in some way, shape or form or I don’t write it. It’d be boring.  There are a lot of romance readers who will tell you that they skim love scenes because it’s all about body parts. That’s not interesting to me, at all. Make sure it reveals something. There are a couple of love scenes in (Susan points to Heroes Are My Weakness) that are just hysterically funny. They may also be sexy, but they reveal something about where the relationship is between Annie and Theo at that point in the book.

Peggy: You’ve written 21 novels since 1983. How has your writing evolved?

Susan:  …If I go back and read my earlier work…If I had to rewrite the books (and I have re-written two of the earlier books) I’d add new scenes, I’d polish characters more, and I’d cut 100 pages out of both of them. Too much exposition, books beginning in the wrong place, too much narration, too much research that I fell in love with that the reader doesn’t need. As I’ve written more, I know what to leave out, what to include in ways that I didn’t know originally.

At that point, Susan turned the table on me and asked questions about my writing journey. She said that she loves talking with other writers and especially enjoys traveling around and meeting her readers. This was evident throughout her presentation at Northshire Bookstore as she conversed with and engaged her audience. While signing books Susan asked questions and posed for photos with anyone who asked, including me:

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Thank you Susan Elizabeth Phillips!

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Thank you Northshire Bookstore for hosting another great author event!

You can learn more about Susan and her books on her website. She also has a “fun stuff” tab and a monthly sweepstakes, plus more! Just click: http://susanelizabethphillips.com