The Writing Life



Who’s Got Your Back?

Posted by on Aug 16, 2017 in Writing | 0 comments

I just spent a week in California visiting with my twin sister. If you read my memoir Thinking of Miller Place, you know her as Finn.

It’s been quite a few years, well decades actually, since we realized on a really deep level that we were and always will be connected. I’ve often said God made me a twin so I wouldn’t be lonely (thank you, Jack Kornfield). Although those psychic twin happenings aren’t as frequent or as profound as they were when we were children, that connection is still there.

My twin is a sounding board, a cheerleader, a guidepost, an audience when I feel silly, creative, funny, and no one else gets it. She’s been a major supporter, not enabler, pointing the way, (often leading the way). Sometimes the support has been kind of an “ouch.” You know that twinge you feel when someone you love and respect lets you know that she knows there’s a certain amount of denial wafting through the air.

Sometimes the support is like a security blanket that you know will be folded at the foot of your bed. She saw me through the intense grief of the death of my first husband, physically and emotionally supported my recovery from several of the “isms” that stalk our society, bolstered stamina rebuilding after illnesses, heart mending after friendship and family losses. She reads my books, essays, and blogs and is the auditory storyboard (is that an oxymoron?) for seeds of new writing and storytelling ideas. She knows me and she’s got my back.

On the surface this past week was a total blast–fun, exciting, relaxing. Two couples enjoying each other’s company, wonderful dinners, walks, the beach, lots of laughing. Underneath, Finn and I rewove the threads of our connection, sharing childhood memories with other people who were just meeting us as “the twins,” filling in memory gaps with each other, and musing over what the future can bring for us both.

I rediscovered how funny my Finn is, how clever, how talented. I see how exacting, how explicitly definite, how specific we both can be and realize this actually is part of what I love about her having my back. There’s no BS. I do marvel that my husband can respond with humor and usually a “hey, it’s okay by me” attitude when I am so, shall we say, direct.

“What a fun week,” I said as my sweetie and I packed the car for the 500-mile drive back to Tucson. “Yeah, yeah,” we all agreed, laughing. Hug to Finn’s Joe, lean over and pat Peanut the adorable dog, call out bye to Mykah the “I’ll warm up to you next time” cat, and turn to hug my sister, my twin, my wombmate.

When what to my wondering soul should arise but a huge sigh, which morphed into a gulping gasp, and sob. Big sob. For 7 days, 168 hours, we had been within physical reach of each other. I could hear her voice almost anywhere in their house. She sings almost all the time. And now I was getting into the car to separate. Hard to do. I will miss this touch factor I got used to during the week. She hugged me really tight and did that pat, pat, pat thing that people do during hugs. And then she kind of rubbed my back with one hand in a small circle motion. And it hit me again. She is and always will be a part of me. She’s got my back.

Who’s got your back?

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.

5 “Rules” That Stifle Your Writing Creativity

Posted by on Jul 24, 2017 in Writing | 4 comments

  1. Write by someone’s else’s schedule
  2. Obey every rule you hear or read about how to write
  3. Fix up a beautiful space for writing
  4. Write what you know
  5. Join a writing group and stick with it

Wait – aren’t those all good ideas? Yes, each one is valid. They’re all foundation blocks of my writing skills. I believe it’s true to repeat what has given you success. However, creativity is fluid and changing. If I’m a strict follower of my habits for months or years, soon there may be little or no thinking required. Not so bad sometimes, but no sparks of “What if?” Or “How about?” It’s like an acquaintance who wears the same hairdo in spite of life’s changes–loss of skin elasticity, skin tone fading, overall weight redistribution and the unstoppable chipmunk cheeks. Change your hair, girl.

My neighbor has a nocturnal desert watercolor that she painted; it was lovely. But the frame wasn’t quite right. She kept the matting but got a new frame. A new soft brown wood frame with a lighter inlaid wood created a huge change. The stars in that desert sky sparkle. Perhaps you can reframe some writing habits.

  1. Reframe “Write By Someone’s Else’s Schedule

If I write every day, at a certain time, sooner or later I’ll resent it. That’s me. I’ll find a way to avoid and perhaps not write at all. Sure, it’s good to be disciplined and have some structure but it’s got to be my choice. I do write every Tuesday, but I also write after I’ve walked around with an idea–filtering, musing over it while I Windex, wash the car, or do yoga. I might write as soon as I wake up, or watching TV, or late at night.

2. Reframe “Obey every rule you hear or read about how to write”

I’m a big believer in biblio-therapy. (Just took a break to eyeball the number of how-to books in our house. More than two hundred if my eyeballs are up to par.) Reading about writing, I’ve read incredible phrases that are posited as rules, a should, or an ought to. Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write has some vague “rules” but more than that she focused on the art of writing.

Her book made me recall what I’ve said when peoples ask, “Is your twin is a writer too?”

“She can write very well. Her art is with cloth, ribbons, thread and needle; she is a fabric artist. My medium is words. I’m an artist in writing.”

If I want to write with abandon and authenticity, I can’t always obey the “Writing Police.” Break some rules. That’s freedom and art.

3. Reframe “Fix up a beautiful space for writing”

A couple of weeks ago I realized I wasn’t doing any writing for myself. In fact I was avoiding going to my office to write. I have a beautiful office. A view of the Catalina Mountains. A spacious oak desk with a comfortable ergonomic chair so my hands are poised at the right level over my laptop. So what’s with the avoidance? I needed a change. Getting away was a sensory experience. The view from my friends’ balcony in Prescott Arizona was awe-inspiring. A vast sky with thunderclouds rumbling in the afternoon. Dick revitalized my taste buds with tortilla-wrapped eggs, bacon, green onions and a sprinkling of cheese. The Phippen Museum of Western Art had a collection entitled “By the Light of the Moon.” The title alone led to writing a rough draft that night of dancing by the light of the moon.

Visiting our friends in Goodyear and listening to Jack deliver his humorous take on just about everything had me smiling the whole time. The lingering East Coast accents of my childhood friends reactivated mine and opened up memory banks I hadn’t visited in years. There’s a high school story waiting to be told.

I can’t get away every weekend, but I can get up every day and take a walk, for an hour, or thirty minutes, or ten. I still carry my Snippets notebook and do a sensory quick write. What do I see, hear, smell, feel- both physically and emotionally?

4. Reframe “Write what you know”

When I first began writing, I was a teacher, and good at it, so I wrote a lot of essays about teaching, kids, and children’s literature. With my masters degree and next career as a counselor and public speaker, I added relationship, marriage, and family dynamics stories and essays to my portfolio–even turned some into an entire book.

But it’s a big world out there. You can move away from your comfort zone genre. Read a different genre, or go to a lecture or spend days away at a conference.

My step out of my writing comfort zone has been through improvisation and oral storytelling. As a writer I can zoom through the first draft; errors get fixed after the initial unloading. Then comes the luxury of revising, polishing, choosing the better word, eliminating the repeats. Improv class was not a step out of my comfort zone. It’s been a leap! I like to present a polished, practiced talk in a confident stance. In Improv I need to trust myself, my scene partner, develop intuition … and leap right then.

Attempting to go to a level ten with an emotion in improv showed me how my written characters are a five at best. Occasionally I’ve hit a ten in written stories–those are the ones folks have liked the most. Other writers have stepped out of their comfort zone with dancing, juggling, high wire walking, hiking, mountain biking, and skydiving. Okay, maybe a little extreme but take a step, even if it’s a baby step.

5. Reframe “Join a writing group and stick with it”

When I got serious about my writing, I heeded my father’s advice. “If you want to do something, hang out with people who are doing it successfully.” I joined the International Women’s Writing Guild, and a local writing group. Being with poets, sci-fi writers, historians, novelists, and memoirists every week taught me about genres. It also gave me a reality check on the commonality of writers’ fears and anxieties, as well as risks and successes. That was where I adopted the quote “Take your work seriously, but never yourself” – variously attributed to Margot Fonteyn and Clint Eastwood (now that’s interesting).

Just as I’ve outgrown clothes or things go out of style (remember the hair), same holds true with groups. Your needs may change. If you keep going to your writing group just for social reasons, quit.  Keep them as friends, but find a new group for writing. Check Meet Up, Facebook, community bulletin boards, libraries, bookstores.

A little bit of #1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 each day and I’m ready to BIC (Butt in chair) and write with zest, humor, audacity. How about you?

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.

 

Stringing Beads

Posted by on Jul 12, 2017 in Writing | 2 comments

My copy of Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write arrived the other day. I “met” her years ago when I was reading a book (title long forgotten) about writing. At the time I was teaching elementary school and telling myself I wanted to learn about writing “for my students.”

One of her quotes was about being content in writing like little children when they are absorbed in a solo activity like stringing beads. I’d seen kids like that. It didn’t matter what other kids were doing, where they were sitting, or how much time they had. They were completely absorbed in putting one bead after another along the string. They focused on getting the string into the little hole. Sometimes it was hard because their little hands weren’t used to this “work.” I’d see a little smile at the corner of their mouth when the tip went through the hole.

Techniques were different. Some slid the bead along manually to the knotted end. Some lifted up the lace tip at the beginning and let the bead zoom down to the end. Ping! Some would touch each bead after it joined its mates. Then it was choice time for the next bead. Just grab a bead without looking? Look over the colors and choose? Compare to what was already strung and make a pattern- red, blue, yellow, red, blue yellow? Happily, very few asked what to do next.

When I move into writing mode, I can get like that too. I’m lost in the writing. Sometimes I bang out the words. Sometimes I choose a word carefully. Sometimes I stop and look over what I’ve written. Is there a pattern? Is it pleasing?

I admit I do like a certain environment when I write–quiet, but not necessarily silent. Instrumental music is okay. Comfortable seating has become more important as time goes by. And it’s nice to have space to the left of my laptop for a snack plate and coffee mug. I realize once I am getting words onto the screen, my focus goes like a laser from brain to eyes to fingers to screen. And yet, if I take my laptop to Crossroads Coffee or am writing with my Eastside Writing Room group, I couldn’t even tell you if they play music. Or if the chair is too hard. So okay, I guess I am “stringing beads.”

Ms. Ueland was born in 1891 and died at the age of ninety-three. This wonderful book was first published in 1938. Almost ten years before I was born, this invitation to write was being extended to anyone. When I opened my book package, I flipped through just to see what it was like. Oh there’s the stringing beads anecdote. That’s when I sat down to read page after page.

Her ideas are direct, almost “Do this.” But there is an encouraging tone as she thinks about and talks to her students. To me, her admonishments are kind of like “Of course you can do this.”

Here are the words that give me permission, yet again, to just be. My creativity is in there. It will come:

       “I learned…that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic    striving, but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness.” 

And here’s the one that keeps the joy in my writing:

“Don’t always be appraising yourself, wondering if you are better or worse than other writers. “I will not Reason and Compare,” said Blake; “my business is to Create.” Besides, since you are like no other being ever created since the beginning of Time, you are incomparable.”

 

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.

Beginning and Resuming

Posted by on Jul 10, 2017 in Writing | 2 comments

Beginning. I’ve learned to pay attention to synchronicity. When one colleague repeated his desire to write, but hadn’t started, I replied, ”Perhaps it’s not a priority yet. Doesn’t have to be a problem. When you’re ready, it will come.” He nodded and walked away, but he had more of a spring in his step as he left.

This concept can be helpful in other situations too. You probably already thought of something you didn’t do. Write that letter. Start the house project. Sign up for the _______ class. Be honest. Maybe it just hasn’t been a priority.

A few days later. Writer friend asks, “How should I begin?”

“Make it simple. Don’t think.”

“Huh?”

“Yeah, just sit down and write stuff. Write garbage. Write pages that are like the warm-up for your workout. Start anywhere. Write the part that keeps repeating in your head.”

Or “I always know the ending; that’s where I start.” ~ Toni Morrison

Write about the event in your life that haunts you. Get rid of the ghost. Put it on paper.

After a reading event, someone in the audience said, “You’re so lucky. You’ve got two books published already.” I didn’t quite know how to respond. As if published books had happened overnight. My first book was a glimmer of an idea even before I knew it would be a book. What got me going was when I realized how I felt when I was writing – I felt free, without anxiety. I recalled a formula for happiness from a self-help book. Paraphrased it went something like: When something feels good or seems to work, plan how to do it again.

I started setting time aside just to write. I learned to be protective of that time. I turned to writers who wrote about writing. Brenda Ueland’s words about women doing less housework and more writing as a creative outlet resounded over and over. Natalie Goldberg’s words about putting pen to paper made sense. Nike emboldened me: Just do it. Recovery phrases seeped into my writing life. One day at a time translated to one page at a time.

Chunk it down. Most problems are easier if I can look at what to do in stages. I relate it to reading. I love reading. I never read just a page or a chapter. I think I’ll read one chapter. Doesn’t happen. I look at my writing like this too. One page becomes two, or a chapter or more. Equate time for writing with something you love to do.

Another gem from a recovery program. Find one person you can share/ begin to share your secrets with. Someone who will not laugh, or back away in horror, or be indifferent. Someone who will listen, cry, or laugh with you. And will not tell anyone else. Because it’s your secret to tell, not theirs. Use that one person to talk to when things get weird, scary, or overwhelming. In my writing it was one writer, Loanne Mayer. We met once a week to talk about our secret writing dream, then we wrote for two hours. More writers joined us and gradually became our Scriveners Writing Group in New Jersey.

Over the years I’ve been a part of, and started, many writing groups. I have gathered a widespread community of writing colleagues. Some I see in person, some on Facebook, some at conferences. But I listened and began to share ideas. I got feedback that made sense. I started to give feedback. My solitary activity of writing now includes a weekly meeting of writers, who gather around a table and write in silence. No talking, no critiquing. There is a sense of peace and shared support in that silence. If you haven’t tried a group, be willing to think about it.

Don’t think, again. I tend to overthink things, big time. Should I revise this chapter- again? Should I make it fiction or non-fiction? (Notice the “shoulds,” the all-time thieves of self-esteem?) So much mental circling is exhausting and often starts at night. My husband and I call this “late night talk.” My husband declines to enter into late night talks because they can be seasoned with drama, exaggeration, and other unhappy emotions. RX for late night talk. Go to bed. Read a book. Embrace Scarlett O’Hara’s motto: I’ll think about it tomorrow.

The next day late night talk often has morphed into “Good grief! What was I thinking?” Or possibly a blander version of the late night idea will work in the light of day.

Resuming your writing. In addition to the two friends with the experiences of not even getting started, and their own mortification at not going through with what they said they wanted to do, there is another saboteur. This often is, ironically, a more humiliating situation. It’s the writer who has started, but not finished.

Writer slumped over her coffee, without looking at me: I haven’t sat at the computer for three months. I’ll have to begin all over again.

Been there, done that. “Not true.” I plied her with more coffee. “Look at it as resuming. Not beginning. Think of it like reading a book. Each time you pick up the book you don’t start all over again. You read from where you left off … You know what to do.”

Trust yourself. You remember what and why you wanted to write. Evict the judge inside your head who says, “Suffer. Stay in guilt, inappropriate though it may be.”

Inappropriate guilt about not writing or not writing enough (now there’s a diminishing statement) coupled with late night guilt is a sure-fire exhauster and assassin of self- esteem. Banish it.

Resume. Sit down at the computer. Pose your fingers over the keyboard. Hit some keys. Write a word. Write another. You’re on your way.

Plan when and where you intend to write. Be specific. “Soon” doesn’t cut it. “Home” does not work. Picture it. 11AM- 2PM on Tuesday at my dining room table with the drapes open to let in sunshine. A/C on. Phone off. Laptop and folder ready. Coffee made. Apple sliced. Cushion on chair.

Get a writing group or partner, in the flesh or online, to state your intention to or share your ideas with.

What to write.

Either you have an idea or you don’t. Let the idea choose you. You do not have to be motivated or inspired. ~ Natalie Goldberg

Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work. ~ Stephen King

When I taught writing to second graders, I often heard:

Second grade lament: But I don’t know what to write about.

Reply: If you did know, what would it be?  Amazing the number of young writers who had a positive reply.

Or

Reply: Make a list of all the things you absolutely do not want to write about.

Enlightened second grade lament: Cool!

Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down. ~ Ray Bradbury Well, that one can still stir up palpitations, but I’m getting better.

Last quote from my all-time favorite wordsmith, Maya Angelou: Words are things… Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.

Let your words get into you.

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.

A Jewel in the Crown of “Show Don’t Tell”

Posted by on Jul 3, 2017 in Writing | 0 comments

I get a Lit Hub email  from Literary Hub every day. When I first subscribed I intended to read it each and every day. Well so much for those self -improvement promises.  I used to save the dailies, sometimes for two weeks at a time. When I finally read past the items to a link or two I felt like someone who only discovers that hidden vacation beach the day before it’s time to go home. (and I know this feeling- it happened in Maine last summer).

I enjoy reading the hub links for writing education- I always want to get better at what I’m doing whether it’s dancing, writing, yes even  more efficient ways to wash my car. Overall watering first? Or front, then driver side, moving around to the back, then passenger side? These steps are important when you live in Tucson and the summer sun can dry your car faster than you can slide that sponge around.

After a few quick reads, where I just scanned to get the main idea, I found time was ticking by as I read the whole article, then read the history of the author, or just reveled in the sensory delight of some of the pieces.

If you want to revel in a gem of a sensory piece, search no further. The June 27  Hub has a link to a New Yorker translation of an Italo Calvino short story “The Adventure of a Skier”   It doesn’t matter if you ski black diamonds or the bunny slope, or only associate a balaclava with incognito larcenists. The words in Skier have visions, emotions, sights, wind, and chilling air, taking you right to the slope. I swear I felt the sting of the sleet on my face, and I’m sitting here in 100 degree Tucson Arizona. All the sensory showing comes rolling at you along with a sense of mystery to read more.

Skiing Wonder

I want to write like that.

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.

High School Graduation- It’s Launch Time!

Posted by on Jun 15, 2017 in Writing | 0 comments

My great-niece is graduating from high school next week. Our other great-niece graduated last week. Her cousin graduated from college in May. When I look at their  senior or graduation photos I see in all of them an eagerness to get out in the world, to move on to the next adventure, a shining hope.

I’m proud of my young relatives who are closing the childhood chapters of their lives and getting ready to write the next chapter of their adult lives. What an exciting time! I hope they feel, believe, and know that the future is lined up with incredible possibilities.

When I taught their much younger counterparts, five, six, seven and eight-year-olds , I kept this quote on my desk:

America’s future walks through the doors of our schools each day. ~ Mary Jean LeTendre

Now my relatives and thousands like them ARE the future. I think we’re in good hands.

I’m proud to have influenced thousands of children in my years of teaching. I’m proud to be part of a family where my mother taught high school French and Latin, my older sister also taught elementary school, my great-niece is starting a teaching job in the fall, and my nephew’s wife teaches.

Just about every adult, and child, for that matter, is a teacher. Think of the pearls of wisdom laid at your feet … or sometimes repeated over and over, that gave you inspiration, a nudge/push, hope, information, a path to follow.

When my sister-in-law was  learning to deal with terminal cancer, a wheelchair became her most-used vehicle. When she had to go out, feelings of being incapable overtook her; she didn’t belong; she often said she’d rather stay home. Her “teacher” was her then eight-year-old granddaughter, who said, “Well Grandma, this is a free world. You can go anywhere.”

When I graduated from Sanford H. Calhoun High School in Merrick, Long Island and four years later from Wagner College on Staten Island, I had that same earnestness I read about on Facebook, and see in my relatives to succeed, to learn, to help people in some way. Though I am not in a classroom wielding a piece of chalk (now there’s an age giveaway) I’m happy I still feel that way today.

Congratulations to graduates–high school, college, tech school, martial arts, prep courses, citizenship class, driving school, and yes, to my great-nephew who graduated from elementary school.

Go for it!! Have an adventure!

 

 

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.

Lunch – A Feast or a Famine

Posted by on Jun 13, 2017 in Writing | 0 comments

Feeling family-ish this week. My great-neice is graduating from high school and her family, her grands, and her great-aunts ( that’s me and my Finn) will gather to celebrate. June is also Father’s Day and I think of my dad a lot. It also was my mother’s birthday.

In her senior years, my mother shared her writing with me and we had some wonderful discussions about writing, with the underpinnings of sharing
love and family.

“Lunch- A Feast or Famine” was one of those pieces, written by her almost twenty years ago. A wonderfully written memoiric essay, I share this in memory of her. Happy Birthday, Mom. And blessings on our mothers- biological, spiritual, chosen.

Lunch – A Feast or a Famine

There are all kinds of lunches or luncheons – feasts or famines.

The noon meal I eat alone at home after the morning chores, invariably termed a “lunch” is usually a rather uneventful occasion. That is, unless the phone rings, and I find myself, having just stuffed my mouth full of more than an ample supply of food, trying to hold a conversation.

Feasts

A luncheon implies two or more people, a carefully planned menu, not a slopped-together peanut butter sandwich. If I’ve left my domicile for a peaceful lunch away from the turmoil that prevails at home, then this moment in time can be a relaxing and centering one.

When I lunch with a family member, good friend, or friends, we not only share physical refreshment but feel free to share our joys and burdens as well. This gives us the opportunity to be understanding, helpful and non-judgmental of each other. As one sage put it, to be thoughtful of others is “a time-honored way of extinguishing the ego’s self-importance.”

This is a time, too, to giggle, laugh, “be in the moment” and prayerfully wish the whole human race be filled with love for each other. The only thing that could mar a special time as this is allowing the conversation to degenerate into a gossip session. Then the opportunity to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually restored is forfeited.

Famine

The loneliest lunch in the world is after you’ve lost your dearest friend, live alone, and occasionally go to a restaurant- alone. I find myself enviously staring at families – toddlers, children, parents, grandparents eating together and enjoying themselves. The little ones sometimes have more food on their faces than in their mouths and there are a few moments of mayhem among the older children. So what? It’s all part of a precious time of the day.

Also within my view are tables where spouses and good friends are deep in conversation, and a table in a corner where lovers are more interested in each other than in the food before them.

Does the male species utilize this special hour of the day to bare their souls and talk about their innermost feelings? I don’t truly know. If they don’t, perhaps it’s really not important to them.

Another Feast

One of the nicest lunch occasions is the one when new friends are met and made. My daughter Ethel and her good friend Mary had been comparing their octogenarian mothers, and decided we should meet. So during my ‘98 Thanksgiving visit to the “North,” arrangements were made for the four “girls” to have lunch at a nearby restaurant. The only knowledge we had beforehand about each other were: our first names, our ties to “Southern living” and the penchant that Mickey (Mary’s mother) and I had for wearing baseball caps in place of the conventional hats proper ladies don. There were hints from the girls that they probably had discussed our other quirks too.

The date of the luncheon arrived. We were to be the guests of our daughters. A loving gesture and a great idea! We arrived at this pleasant restaurant and I immediately knew that Mary with her broad smile and pretty red hair was a very special person in Ethel’s life. As for Mickey, there was no doubt that this smiling lady with twinkling eyes was my kind of “gal”- not some “pooped-out” oldster glued to her rocking chair. We spoke of shared activities and interests as well as our plans for the future. The conversation flowed easily. Pictures were taken at the table. The food was delicious! All in all, it was a very, very pleasant time. With the blend of young and old, I felt young again!

Well, it was time to say good-bye, and as we got up and put on our coats, I saw that Mickey put on her baseball cap. On the other hand, I was in the process of donning an ugly, but sensibly warm little woolen skull cap. It was then I noticed the look of dismay on Mickey’s face, and the disappointment in her voice when she learned I hadn’t even packed my cap! A terrible sinking feeling overcame me. Our daughters wanted pictures of their two mothers outside! Oh, the shame of it! Mickey’s expression of disappointment was only momentary. The pictures taken that day reveal two older ladies with smiles, respect for one another, and hearts full of love and gratitude for two loving daughters who made possible a day that was truly a feast.   Also, I have a feeling if Mickey and I lived closer to each other, we might raise some eyebrows and be “too much” for our daughters.

12/1998 Gladys Erickson  Property of Ethel Lee-Miller

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.

Just Have Fun

Posted by on Jun 12, 2017 in Writing | 0 comments

Picture this. I’m pacing a three-foot area muttering to myself, making small, but definite air gestures. My eyes may seem focused but there’s that far away gaze. My friends, you’ve seen that look on people. It’s the pre-speech preparation, heightened for me because it’s a Toastmasters contest … and competition gives me rush!

Suddenly a pair of eyes set in a round face and attached to a slightly shorter person are peering at me – close-up. “Do you know what you want to say?” the shorter person asks.

“Yes.”

“Have you practiced some?”

Some? Just about a hundred times.”

“So here’s the thing,” my fellow Toastmaster says. “Just have fun.” And he walks away.

“Yes, yes,” I say to his departing back, “But you don’t understand. I have to be perfect- then it will be fun.” But…perfect – fun. Perfect- fun… Incompatible.

The last thought I have as my name is called is “just have fun.”

The Toastmaster was Mike Zakis, a longtime dedicated Toastmaster in Arizona. I confess to you Mike sometimes drove me crazy. Don’t worry he knows this and he understands. His style of life seemed to be to “wing it.” I prepare. I plan. I have a folder or list for everything. Well, maybe not everything. Many of you have experienced my planning lists for events. But I digress.

Mike was right. Just have fun worked. I dropped the need for perfection. I enjoyed myself. I also refrained from doing my usual post-speech perfection checklist.

I do like to have fun, really I do. And it’s smart to plan for things. It’s the over-planning and over-prep that has needed to be 86ed in my life. It’s linked to the Protestant work ethic. An old and revered package of “work first, then play.” Over the years I added to it: “planning takes priority” and “perfection is paramount.”

Carrying that package is fatiguing and often cut down on energy I had left over to have fun.

So I’ve revised my package. I invite you to consider these ideas for yourself. Perfection is out. I’m allowed to plan, sometimes even overplan, because I do get a kick out of it. The Mike Zakis fun clause is in. Plan & then – Stop. Be in the moment. Keep your head where feet are. Look and listen to people. Look and listen to what’s around you.

Be amazed. Be delighted. Trust that it is all right. Dance. Laugh. Hug. Kick back and enjoy. Just have fun.

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.

Just Say YES!

Posted by on Jun 3, 2017 in Writing | 10 comments

YES is a small word with lots of power.

Lately “yes” has been coming at me from several directions.

First YES: Entering a post-70th birthday purge, I’ve been tossing things, cleaning up my computer, deleting old documents. I found a seminar script from one of my earliest workshops entitled YES I CAN! Having come of age in the Just Say No to all the somewhat destructive impulsive activities of the ‘70s and ‘80s, this YES workshop had a new spin. Yes to dreams, yes to success, yes to self-love and following that, yes to love in an intimate relationship.

Why not update this YES I CAN to fulfill some dreams for 2017?

Next YES: After years of wanting to take an improv class since I moved to Arizona, I finally signed up for a sampler class at Unscrewed Theater, a local improv theatre here in Tucson AZ. It is the home of the improv troupe Not Burnt Out Just Unscrewed. Our instructor, Mike, bubbled with enthusiasm and out poured one idea after another for three fast-moving hours. But here are the words he said that pulled me into the commitment to improv. The moment I started applying the tenants of improv my life got better across the board.” What! Really?

Another gem: The one and only rule stated by our instructor: Support and follow up what is said with “YES AND…” This opened up a memory of using “yes and” when I was teaching elementary kids. “No” can be a red flag for most people, not just little ones. NO can be so awfully final. It means to your battle stations, argue, pout. So why not turn it into yes?

“Can we go out for recess?” “Yes as soon as we put all these books on the shelf.”

“Can I sit next to David?” Sure, you just move your desk next to his.”

Extrapolate that. Can I ever get a Distinguished Toastmasters certificate? Yes, just do one project after another and you’ll get there.

Can we afford to buy this house? Yes, if we stick to this budget we’ll have the down payment in six months.

Can I get my book written? Yes, put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard regularly, and it WILL happen.

“Yes” is connected to action, either mental or physical. Kind of like a post-it reminder in my office: Parties who want milk should not seat themselves on stool in the middle of a field in hopes that a cow will back up to them. ~ Elbert Hubbard

After the three-hour improv sampler I signed up for their eight-week class. When I told Hank, my husband, and main cheerleader, he dryly remarked, “Oh what a surprise.” Yes and, he also said it with a smile.

Personal YES: My friend Rose sent an email: (When I took improv) I also became a much better person. I developed the capacity to have even more patience with my husband (a two-time stroke survivor) and allow other people to be who they are.

 I may not want to live their lifestyle but I allow them to be.  I also say yes to life.  I am more supportive of other people.  My creativity in all areas of my life grew leaps and bounds.  Out of improv I had to courage to expand the puppet business with puppet shows and me singing and playing the ukulele. “ Rose, the Tucson Puppet Lady

I’m not writing this to be preachy, but because there may be folks out there who are looking for a simpler way to get along in life. Improv or improv “games” could offer that, along with fun. Improv is about not being perfect, not trying to be clever all the time. Whew, the pressure is off.

Literary YES: Looking for a new Kindle book a few days later, I googled “improvisation.” One title really caught my eye: Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Ryan Madson. Learn about improvisation and get a shot of wisdom at the same time? There’s a yes for me. I thought the book would have a listing of icebreakers, warm-ups, and action games.

Not so, but Ms. Madsen is giving me just what I need. Not out of the box ideas but simpler in the box suggestions for daily use. Just say yes for a day or a week. Just say yes to someone in your life. Rather than “no” or the oblique “no” of “Why not do it this way, aka my way, instead?” (which is labeled a blocker) simply accept the way something is suggested.

My life doesn’t have room anymore for folks who suggest overly risky or illegal ideas, so to try the exercise of just saying yes for a week has been enlightening. I do love to have my way, not only because I cling to the belief that I’m right, but I just like to get my way, and it’s a habit that perhaps has run its course.

From my brief Improv Sampler experience, I believe the “yes and” suggestion in improvisation means 100% yes to your scene partner’s statement. Not simply agreeing and then going off on your own path, but adding to their statement. Making your partner look good.

When you are in a relationship in life, whether friendship, intimate, or professional, and you make your partner look good (and that does not mean you have to look bad – it’s not about you) it becomes fun to see how many ways you can say yes, agree, add to the ‘scene.’

Bonus to boost the YES: Over the years I’ve gotten a lot of positive back-up from a book that scared the bejezzus out of me when I was a kid. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Queen’s fondness for cutting off heads added to more than one childhood nightmare. But Alice also offers some aid for YES I CAN:

“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

“If you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there.”

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Hey, I’ll say yes to that.

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.

What an Attitude!

Posted by on Jun 2, 2017 in Writing | 2 comments

What an Attitude!

“Boy, she’s got some attitude!” I think how you take that can be different depending on what you think of yourself to begin with. Could be positive or negative. The negative can often slide into first place if I’m not careful.

A refrain that still can echo in my mind is “You better change your attitude, young lady.” It’s definitely an oldie and meant I was speaking out of turn, being “fresh,” or breaking the “children should be seen and not heard” edict. Isn’t it interesting that years later, it still has some remnants of power?

My attitude is how I look at something, which in itself cannot be wrong. Perhaps how I express it may ruffle some feathers, step on toes, or just push some buttons. And I admit, bids for power led me to do just that for many years. I’d just let fly with whatever words came down past my non-operating frontal lobe. It sure got a rise out of folks. I think I have learned to be more diplomatic, and compassionate. Today remarks about my attitude in a way that may be an attempt at behavior control, invoke either a Mona Lisa smile or a simple “Thank you.”

Charles Swindoll’s writing about attitude came into my life at least twenty years ago, and has been a mainstay since then. Other quotes have bolstered what he said: “Folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Thank you, Abe Lincoln. A paraphrase of Henry Ford: If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right.

Swindoll’s piece is still one I take out and read when I’m unsure of myself. Reading it over, I can look beneath what’s bothering me about a situation– maybe it’s really some relationship tension, a too much to do perspective, or an “I’m too tired” feeling. I can stop and make a decision about what’s really bothering me. I can then step away from over-involvement with my self and choose a positive attitude. Sometimes it calls for an “I’ll get back to you on this.” But the decision comes lots easier.

I used this piece when I started seriously writing, not dabbling, and some naysayers asked, “What makes you think anyone would want to read/listen to you read what you write?” Ouch, huh?! But I knew if one person nodded their head in recognition, or laughed, or got teary-eyed, I had a valid message to share. That was enough for me.

Try it: and thank you, Charles Swindoll

Attitude

The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstance, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill. It will make or break a company… a church… a home.

The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past. We cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable.

The only thing we can do is play on the one thing we have and that is our attitude… I am convinced that life is 10 % what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you… we are in charge of our attitudes. ~ Charles Swindoll

Charles Swindoll has been sharing his nuggets of Christian wisdom for decades, and is still going strong in Texas. https://www.insight.org

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.