The Writing Life



Can you really be more creative on vacation?

Posted by on Oct 18, 2017 in Writing | 0 comments

The Promise Promised myself I would use time while vacationing on Kauai  to muse, to be, to let my creative spirit bubble up. I watched the waves break from pretty far out, young surfers riding in. Was mesmerized by the water at Spouting Horn, and let the sound of waves breaking just outside my window at night lull me into a restful sleep. My breath came easier and deeper. After the two days it took to have my shoulders pull away from the stress position near my ears, it happened. Character sketches morphed into being, aha’s about my reactions to recent exchanges passed through my head like a slow moving, but brilliantly-colored caterpillar.  This ‘just be’ thing really works.

The Results This morning with laptop open, I’m ready to have those vignettes, stories, characters surround me, clamoring to be put down in print. But the brilliant phrases and aha’s – gone, tucked away somewhere in the recess of my vacation-relaxed mind. Perhaps not all creative musing is meant to be written.

What do you think?

Is There Really Autumn in Arizona?

Posted by on Sep 21, 2017 in Writing | 5 comments

September 22 is our autumnal equinox. Fall arrives. Yes, East Coast friends and family, autumn in Tucson does happen. Leaves do change color. Witness the cottonwoods by the creek in Sabino Canyon. Golden.

 

 

Pick your own pumpkins and fruit and gawk at the huge sunflowers at Apple Annie’s in Wilcox.

 

 

Aspen trees in Arizona turn a brilliant sunshine-drenched yellow. Okay, so my photo is from Cedar Breaks, but it is just over the line in Utah.

Mornings around our house are greeted by “I think we can open up” meaning no A/C but some fresh cool morning air. Maybe the A/C goes back on in the afternoon when the thermometer rises to the high 90s or perilously close to 100°, but the house is open and airy for a few hours.

Clothing choice becomes fallish, a short-sleeved top as opposed to the thinnest sleeveless one I can find. When there’s a September or October day where the evening temps plummet to 60-65°, fashionistas break out the shawls, scarves, and long pants that would induce heat exhaustion in the tri-month heat blast that is summer. Flip-flops are still a staple for footwear; this is Tucson, after all.

The sun rises a little bit to the left of our bedroom window as the earth begins that tilt. And it sets just as brilliantly as in summer, but a few minutes earlier each night.

My friend Glenn tells me it’s time to think about cutting back on some plants, put in some new cactus, and reduce the irrigation time for the back patio plants.

Hikes and morning walks can be pushed to 7:00 or even 8:00 a.m. starting times – although there is something therapeutically calming about hiking at 6:00 a.m. when the sun is just starting to yawn and stretch up over the foothills. Temps drop to the 70s at night so metal fences and cement block walls cool down. Swimming pool and, for us, the “spool” (larger than a spa, smaller than a pool) water seems, dare I say it, cold when you first get in.

We live near Sabino High School so the sounds of football cheers and band practice drift our way. I watch with envy as girls and boys walk, jog, and run along the roads for cross country practice.

I find I can once again wear gold or silver necklaces outside without fear of neck burns from the summer heat. Additional staples are sunscreen and my insulated water bottle. The other staple is to keep my eyes open, to observe, and gather more “seeds” for my gardens of stories.

Enjoy autumn wherever you are!

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.

My Southwestern Autumn Journey

Posted by on Sep 19, 2017 in Writing | 3 comments

Autumn at the N. Rim, Grand Canyon

MULTI-CULTURAL INFLUENCES ON MY AUTUMNAL BELIEFS            

I can’t deny the vast influence of Native American culture here in Tucson. Names of places, trees, plants and flowers pay tribute to the tribes that were here long, long before other peoples. Festivals, events, and exhibits teach lots more than I learned in school. The Red Road has become a helpful tool. Although this book has moved from bedside to living room table, to kitchen table (nighttime, daytime, and morning readings respectively), it’s still front and center.

THE RED ROAD

“Autumn is a time of introspection, harvest, and thanksgiving. As the growing season ends, we look to the west, to the direction of sundown and know that the blackness of winter is coming. Use this time to reflect, to remember our past and those who crossed over before us. Autumn is also a time for sharing, for donating time and money to charity, and for forgiving those who need forgiveness. Set aside grievances and focus on tomorrow.”  ~365 Days of Walking The Red Road: The Native American Path to Leading a Spiritual Life Every Day

Pretty solemn words. Yet I have found it easy to use these words from The Red Road when I’m feeling particularly concerned about someone or something, or recentering myself, or feeling particularly grateful for what has happened in the weeks or year past.

It’s been quite a year. I can almost visualize the ups and downs. I experienced several months of illness from shingles, lamented over the debilitating illnesses of friends, and mourned several friends who have crossed over. This led me to culturally expand my ideas about forgiveness, and God’s hand in life and death.

Focusing on the tomorrows. I cherish the photos sent by family and friends of the first days of kindergarten, third grade, middle school, and college. I’m thrilled to be a part of experiences with clients, sharing the joy as they begin to believe, “Yes I am a writer,” and the affirmation of having my own articles accepted in print. It can only get better.

HO’OPONOPONO

I added Ho’oponopono to my daily routine. This Hawaiian practice of forgiveness is teaching me to use a simple four-step mantra to “set things right.” ~ The Book of Ho-oponopono

EMBRACING THE SIGN  

Marion Goldstein’s book nudged me to look at personal “coincidences” that occurred after friends died. As examples, what’s the connection, if any, of welcoming new babies to this world just before or after the deaths of friends? What made my deceased mother’s circle pin “turn up” after being lost for two years, and appearing the day before her birthday?

All this reminds me autumn is coming and there are harvests to come.

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

If you would like a signed copy of Ethel’s harvest of stories, Seedlings, go to the book page of this website.

 

What’s It Like to be Professional?

Posted by on Sep 5, 2017 in Writing | 2 comments

Crafting a story, polishing a pitch to an agent or editor, delivering a speech, acing an interview, speaking in public – what does it take to do this in a professional way?

My colleague, Penelope Starr and I refer to ourselves as professionals and offer tips and tools that clients/storyteller/participants can use to create a professional aura in their work.

But what does that mean? Professional behavior and ethics can run the gamut from know what you’re talking about, to know your stuff and your client, to deliver what you promise, to take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. (Thank you, Judy Dench and others)

When Penelope and I present TELL IT!, we promise to give researched and training information, tips and tools that we know work – either because we’ve learned from masters, we’ve done it-more than once,  or we wrote the book about it ( The Radical Act of Community Storytelling: Empowering Voices in Uncensored Events ©2017 Penelope Starr). Between us we’ve got almost 35 years of professional storytelling, public speaking, life skills coaching, and teaching experiences. And we love to share!

We promise a comfortable learning environment, and a workshop that starts and ends on time. We are bound by what we believe: to create a safe environment, so someone previously belittled for being “too smart” or “too funny” or “not smart enough” or “not funny enough,” can step up to the mic and go for it, go over the top! Be the you that’s been waiting to come out and play/shine!

We believe we have an ethical responsibility to treat each participant with courtesy and kindness. We’re dealing with group behavior as well as individuals who bring all their hopes, success and fears about speaking and performing in public.

That’s serious stuff. But it doesn’t mean we have to be totally serious. Jokes, props, humor at ourselves, and quotes help us all to lighten up and have an enjoyable time.

Bottom line: We deliver. You’re in good hands. We provide an environment where you can be more aware of what you know, what you perceive, and then practice, play, and enhance those perceptions.

Join us Sat. Sept. 30 1:00-4:00 Unscrewed Theater in Tucson. TELL IT!- whatever your “tell it” is

Contact Ethel or Penelope for info or to register.

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.

Child’s Play

Posted by on Sep 4, 2017 in Writing | 0 comments

Learning by playing

Now that I’ve “graduated” from my Improv 101 class, I’m even more into play and observing people. When I was a teaching, we always said that play was the “work” of young children. The championship titleholders for play and being in the moment are still kids.

Lower your sights–physically–and you’ll be sure to laugh out loud, smile, or at least feel the tug of those facial muscles turning upward. Come on, stop working or doing those worrisome “what ifs” and wile away some time watching kids.

Scene: My sweetie and I are eating lunch at the Rincon Mountain Grill at 49ers. A foursome sits at a table to my left. Well really, a 3 ½. In my imagination it’s Dad, a female friend, Grandpa, and a pint-sizer, maybe three years old.

Dad and female sit facing me. Pintsize sits on Dad’s lap, tapping glasses, giving two napkins to each person, and tilting the salt shaker. When those are removed from her reach, she’s got to move to the next level. She certainly is not ready to sit and talk and wait for food.

She slides off Dad’s lap and starts to wander. But not far. Little ones seem to have a certain distance they will go away from the locus of control. Then back to center (Dad). On her second foray out, she looks at me. I stare back with my happy face. She stops and backs up to a point where her line of vision is cut. She leans to the side and her eyes are hidden behind the back of Grandpa’s chair and his arm. She knows she’s safe even though her one leg is out in a kind of side arabesque. She can’t see me and her understanding of space is limited. So of course, from her perspective, I can’t see her. Leg down, she peeks; I give a sidelong long. I tilt my head slightly and smile, just a little. She hides. She peeks. I give a full on smile. Her little mouth opens in a small “O,” her eyes widen and… she smiles. My improv teacher would be so proud. A non-verbal scene is building. Aha! She is walking toward me.

“Food’s here,” says Grandpa. “Look what I got.” She’s gone.

Scene! Thwarted by dietary needs.

But still… a fun game.

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.

 

Yellow Crocus

Posted by on Aug 27, 2017 in Writing | 0 comments

I was only going to read for a “little while.” Yellow Crocus came to me from my friend’s richly overstocked bookshelves. Taking a break in my office I moved to my reading chair. Twice before I had looked at the book and put it back. But yesterday was different. I read the first sentence. I read the second…

I’ve never had a biological child. I have no real life experience with birth, labor, nursing. But I know what it is to love a child who is not “yours.” I know the fierce physical pressure when you know you would fight anyone who threatened that child. So reading the rich, vivid, sensory description of a mother “curled around the warm shape of her son” made me sigh.

I pulled a hassock in front of the chair, put up my feet, and settled in.

This afternoon I finished Yellow Crocus. It wasn’t just the mother/child relationship  that had me reading last night and then today until my eyes started burning. I kept turning pages to read more of the historical significance of the pre-Civil War era; to admire the tenacity of the main characters, Mattie, the wet nurse slave who is taken away from her baby to be a proxy mother to Lisbeth, the daughter of a white plantation owner; to cry over the cruelty of humans in justifying inhumane acts; to be reassured  throughout the book that the heart is truly an expandable organ.

Reading like a writer, I am inspired to “show” more in my writing as Ms. Ibrahim seems to do with ease. Mattie shows her love for her son each day as she lifts her hand to give a small hello wave, even though he cannot see her; she tickles under a baby’s chin.

Lisbeth is believably bored as a little girl, testing how far she can go with wiggling a table leg with her foot before calamity. She is happy in her “private bubble” with a friend. She grows more aware of the slave/owner person/not-person attitude in her home and I kept cheering her on as she struggled to find her voice.

So much more. Get the book. Let me know what you think.

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.

Travel Anywhere- Go to a Library

Posted by on Aug 17, 2017 in Writing | 0 comments

This article by Rebecca Solnit reminded me of sitting in the little red chair in the children’s corner at the town library in Merrick, LI. At home there was always a book at the foot of our beds when my sisters and I were young. If we woke up, there was a book to “read.” I think I loved books even before I could read. At the library I traveled via picture books to Paris, Neverland, meeting Jane Eyre, Trixie Belden, and Heathcliff. And it was all free. Was that when the seed was planted that I could write? Write a story? Write a book?

My little library was built in 1897 and I sat there in the 1950s. Lucky me!

“The United States’s public libraries sometimes seem to me the last refuges of a democratic vision of equality, places in which everyone is welcome, which serve the goal of an informed public, offering services far beyond the already heady gift of free books you can take home, everything from voter registration to computer access.” Read more…

Rebecca Solnit on a Childhood of Reading and Wandering   http://lithub.com/rebecca-solnit-on-a-childhood-of-reading-and-wandering/

 

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 | 10 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.