Saturday, October 10, 2015

Our Collective Humanity in the Individual Details of Our Lives

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a friend. We email back and forth frequently, to stay in touch and up-to-date on each other’s lives. This friend was trekking through a problem at work, and wrote a very insightful explanation of the issue: what he was struggling with, why this was difficult for him, and the potential solutions he planned to employ.

In my email response, I mentioned how impressed I was with the way he put his feelings and motives into words. I think many people would be able to relate to this, I wrote.

I was surprised when he dismissed my compliment. Oh, he replied, it wasn’t meant for other people. I was just writing about myself. He seemed to think that, because he was telling a story about his own life, his thoughts, feelings, ideas and insights would not be resonant or relatable for other people.

To me, this could not be further from the truth! Details from our own individual lives are, I believe, where we find our collective humanity. However, I think many, many of us fall into the same trap of self-dismissal as my friend did, at one time or another.

As a fiction writer, I have learned a counterintuitive principle: if you want readers to care about your characters, you might think to make your characters “everyone”—more vague, and less clearly defined, so that everyone can relate to them. But instead, the exact opposite holds true. The more detailed you are about specific, unique experiences, the more readers see themselves reflected in your characters. It is the stories that connect us; stories that make us care. As Joseph Campbell writes in his book The Power of Myth, stories have the unique purpose of passing down myths through the generations. There are common themes found in stories, from all societies, races, religions, time periods—threads that link us together as human beings.
In Lera Auerbach’s luminous book Excess of Being, published by Arch Street Press, this idea of details connecting us and getting to the heart of our common humanity is illuminated beautifully through her finely wrought prose. A Russian-American artist, this is Auerbach's first book in English, and she uses aphorisms to tell her story and examine her life. I found myself wanting to underline nearly every line on each page; this is a book bursting at the seams with honest beauty and wisdom. I found hope even in Auerbach's moments of darkness and irony, because I saw myself and my own experiences--my doubts, my fears, my frustrations--reflected in hers.

Not a single word is wasted. This is a book that begs to be read slowly, savored, and read again.

Here are some of my favorite aphorisms from Excess of Being:

"If you have a flaw -- make it part of your legacy."

"Music happens within. A performer allows others to hear what is already sounding."

I listen to the other silence--
the one that wells up
from within.
Finally, I'm listening."

Back to my friend. Oh, he had written, it wasn’t meant for other people. I was just writing about myself.

I replied to him that writing about yourself, and for yourself, is the best kind of writing. Writing about something that matters to you or helps you in some way ensures that it will matter to someone else and help someone else.

Monday, October 5, 2015

5 Steps to Organize Your Workplace

Guest Post by Emily Johnson 

The writing process needs both research and creativity. While finding a good idea for your masterpiece takes a considerable amount of time, you may notice that writing, editing, and proofreading can also be labor-intensive. It means a good writer needs to stay focused.

Answer these three questions:
• Do you want to stay productive?
• Do you need inspiration?
• Do you have a back pain?

If the answer to one of these questions is yes, you need to pay attention to your workplace. 

Workplace organization is more than just cleaning up your writing place. It is the art of proper decoration and renovation. As soon as your workplace is well-organized, you'll see your productivity growth.

When it comes to workplace organization, people crave for actionable examples. Being inspired by this infographic about writing cabinet organization, we've prepared a list of steps every person should take to organize a perfect workplace.

1. Get rid of extra stuff. If your table is clean, nothing distracts you.

2. Upgrade your gadgets. Optimize your working process with the help of up-to-date gadgets.

3. Demarcate two zones. Your workplace should have two zones: computer and non-computer ones.

4. Hang a picture. Find something that can inspire you: paintings, quotes, or books.

5. Buy a comfortable chair. Your office chair should support the lower back as well as promote a good posture.

One way to stay productive at home is to organize your workplace. These steps are easy to take, so don't hesitate to create a perfect writing environment around you.

ways to organize your writing cabinet

Bio: Emily Johnson is a blogger behind OmniPapers, a website about writing life of students and everyone who creates content for the Web.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Playful Imagining: My First Time Doing Improv Comedy

“You’re second cousins,” the instructor said, pointing definitively at me and at Kelsey, a young woman I had just met twenty minutes earlier. The rest of the class backed away into an audience, leaving Kelsey and I alone together on our makeshift stage. “And you’re waiting in a loooong line for a roller coaster. Go!”

Kelsey sighed and began tapping her foot, glancing at her imaginary watch. “How much longer is this line?” she whined.

I took her lead and impatiently crossed my arms—and my legs. “I have no idea,” I said. “All I know is, I reaaaaally have to pee.” The rest of the class laughed, and I felt encouraged. I had acted out a character, in a spur-of-the-moment situation, and made them laugh!

I never would have thought I would take part in an Improv Comedy class. I love watching comedy and live theater, and in college my roommates and I would go to Improv shows nearly every Friday night at a coffee-shop on campus. But getting up onstage myself? No, thanks! My stomach knotted up just thinking about it.

Then one day, my boyfriend asked if I would like to attend a beginner’s Improv class with him. I was scared, but it seemed like the kind of scared that begs to be challenged. Plus, with my boyfriend by my side, I feel like Superwoman. I could do anything! Even Improv! I told him it sounded like a fun date night idea and to sign me up.

As the date of the class approached, I grew more and more apprehensive. While I enjoy public speaking, I do not consider myself to be an actress. And while I love writing about characters outside myself, actually personifying other people and characters does not come easily to me. I also like a sense of control. I was especially intimidated by the "not-knowing" aspect of Improv. What if I can't think of any good ideas? What if I have a mind-freeze? What if I ruin the scene and let down my partner?

When we arrived at the studio where the class would be held, I made an intentional decision. You might call it a promise to myself. I consciously pushed these worries aside and focused my energies on having fun and soaking up a new adventure.

In the book Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberating the Creative Soul (Arch Street Press), David Castro writes: “In normal usage the word playful signifies frolic and humor, and suggests a context of recreation. Genership, however, focuses on a particular definition of the verb to play: to move or function freely within prescribed limits. Within genership and CoVisioning, the word playful conveys commitment to free experimentation and movement, in the sense that someone might play with a control panel or software package to learn how it works and discover its full potential.”

This is Improv at its essence: moving and functioning freely within the prescribed limits of the scene. Only when you allow yourself to be free within the parameters of the situation you have been given, do the ideas begin to flow into your mind.

Castro continues: “To play and be playful in this sense means to explore and exploit a situation’s full potential. … Genership promotes enthusiastic playfulness, whereas the leadership paradigm tends to restrict it. … To play a game is to enter into it and explore everything that can happen within its environment as we move and manipulate its features. The opposite of a playful orientation is one that sees the world as given and something with which we should not interfere. When someone tells us, 'Don't play with that!' what he admonishes is Don’t touch it, don’t manipulate it, let it be only as you find it. A critical part of the creative orientation required for genership is to explore the environment together, testing the application of the will to all parts of it in a playful way—manipulating, risking and examining what happens when we attempt to make changes.”

In class, we learned that the first rule of Improv is never to say, “No.” Instead, when discovering a scene with your partner, you always say, “Yes, and…” This is what allows the scene to grow and expand and gain life, rather than stagnate and die on the vine. Yes, and. Exploring, manipulating, creating. Why is this group co-creation so important?

In Genership, Castro explains, “Playing together in groups expands our ability to explore the potential environment for change. One person playing alone can only apply his personal thinking and activities. A team of people creates the opportunity to apply a spectrum of ideas and abilities to the world, yielding infinitely greater potential for change.”

Improv class ended up being one of the best date nights my boyfriend and I have ever shared. I loved seeing him jump into a new endeavor, just as I could tell he was delighted each time I raised my hand to volunteer and bounded onstage. The wonderful instructor created an environment of energy and creativity in the class, and people were very supportive of each other.

To be sure, I was definitely a little nervous and uncomfortable the entire time… but, you know what? It was exhilarating to get up in front of people and act out a zany scene on the fly. It made me feel proud of myself. Indeed, I ripped off the label I had always put on myself as "someone who could never do Improv." Now that label is gone. In fact, my sweetie and I are already talking about going back to Improv class again soon!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

International Literacy Day

I'm teaming up with my friends at Grammarly today on International Literacy Day!

Brittany Ross of Grammarly writes:

Since UNESCO celebrated the very first International Literacy Day on September 8, 1966, the plight of millions of people around the world has improved through programs dedicated to helping marginalized populations become literate. But there is still a long way to go.

Illiteracy is more than just a lack of reading skills. Around the world, it is a clear predictor of poverty, illness, and disempowerment. It’s not a problem confined to the developing world, either. Even in the United States, there are thirty-two million adults who cannot read, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

To celebrate International Literacy Day and help raise awareness about the importance of literacy, we have gathered the latest literacy statistics from around the world into an infographic.

Literacy Day

Infographic credit:

Monday, August 31, 2015

Interview with Poet Mary McCall

When I was a graduate student at Purdue University, I was fortunate to meet many amazing people who shared a passion for words. I remember the first time I met Mary McCall, I immediately wanted to be her friend. (And not just because she bakes legendary cupcakes!) She is a beautifully insightful person, which shines through in her poetry. (You can read three exquisite examples here.) I was thrilled to learn her debut poetry chapbook, SINGING FOR SIRENS, was recently published by Maverick Duck Press -- you can order it directly from the press here for about the cost of a fancy Starbucks drink. These poems will boost your spirit much more than coffee ever could!

Mary is pursuing her PhD in composition/rhetoric at Purdue University where she also teaches first-year composition. Her work has been nominated twice for Best of the Net and appeared in Decompression, Chantarelle’s Notebook, The Storyteller, Thick with Conviction, and elsewhere. I am absolutely delighted to have her visiting the blog today to share more about her new book, writing habits, inspirations, and more!

Tell us about your book and how it came to be. 

My chapbook has been a work-in progress since college where I started taking poetry and fiction classes as an English major/creative writing minor. Even after graduation and during graduate school, I made it a point to take online poetry classes during the summer to keep up with the craft. Being a professional writer has always been a dream of mine, but I wanted to follow this dream step-by-step. I first focused on getting some of my work published in print and online journals and then I turned my sights to putting together a chapbook. However, I wasn't alone in this endeavor and appreciate all of the support I received along the way from fellow writing friends, classmates, professors, and editors who helped me produce and shape the work that ultimately went into this chapbook. I couldn't have done it without them.

What inspires you? 

I’m a Jersey girl at heart, so I've always found the ocean to be a great source of inspiration. Many of the lines and ideas for the poems in my chapbook came to me while I was swimming at the beach near my grandparents’ shore house that I've visited every summer since I was 2. There’s just something about the salt air and crest of a wave that sparks my muse. My love for books is another source of inspiration as I’m a fan of wordplay à la Lewis Carroll. I enjoy weaving literary references into my work at times, which hopefully you can get a hint of in my chapbook!

How do you find time to write in the midst of a busy schedule/life? 

Good question. There are times where I’m better at juggling graduate school and poetry than others, but overall, I try to set easy goals for writing during the school year so that I don’t become too overwhelmed. For instance, I may intersperse reading a new collection of poetry with grading or reading for classes. Or I might try to finish a draft of a poem in a week. During the summer, I try to sign up for a 6-8 week online poetry course to join a workshop setting again and get feedback on my work. The Gotham Writers Workshop has been a wonderful place to sign up for classes, and I would recommend Gotham’s classes to anyone interested in creative writing. In addition to poetry classes, they also offer classes in fiction, nonfiction, scriptwriting, and many others. They offer classes for teen writers, as well.

Who are some of your favorite poets? 

I’ve really enjoyed reading the work of Jeannine Hall Gailey. If you’re interested in modern takes on characters within fairy tales, I would recommend reading her book, Unexplained Fevers. She also writes from the perspective of superheros and spy girls in Becoming the Villainess. Another favorite poet is a former poetry professor of mine, Kim Bridgford. Her teaching and her work showed me how a writer can be creative with structured poetry. A good example of this is her book, In the Extreme: Sonnets about World Records. This is a fun and clever read and I especially enjoyed her sonnet about the woman with the longest fingernails in the world.

Do you have a favorite poetry prompt to share? 

This prompt was the inspiration for my poem, “After-Prom at the Diner,” and comes from poet Matthew Lippman, who taught one of my Gotham poetry classes and offers his own one-to-one poetry workshops: I would like you to locate something iconic about your country/state/city and write about that place by using the image of that “thing” to convey the geographical, political, cultural, social landscape of that place.

What is your biggest advice for other writers and artists? 

As writers, we all have big dreams about where we want to take our writing—and this is great! We need these dreams to motivate us to write that next paragraph, sentence, few words when we’re tired and feel blocked. However, it’s easy (at least, for me) to become so fixated on these dreams that we focus less on how we’re actually going to work towards them. So, I’ve found it useful to break down any writing aspirations I have into smaller goals. For instance, when I realized that I wanted to publish a chapbook, I decided to work on writing and editing individual poems for this collection. I researched presses and bought chapbooks from them to both support the press and its poets and to learn more about the type and style of work that they preferred. Overall, I hope that my experience with publishing a chapbook will be a stepping stone towards my first full-length book of poetry. For me, it’s easy to compare myself to others and to feel like I’m not doing enough when it comes to writing. However, there is no set timeline for writing and I use the smaller goals I set for myself to remind me that every writer has his/her own pace—it’s not a race!

Is there anything else you would like to add?

First off, thank you for showcasing me on your blog! I’m honored to be featured here and hope that my responses help other writers as all of my writing friends and teachers have helped me. I would encourage anyone reading this to continue to write and read what you love and to find a fellow writing buddy to share drafts with and bounce ideas off of. You could even schedule a time to meet with him/her once a month or every other week to read other’s work either in-person or online if (like me) you need deadlines to keep you focused. I find this to be a great means of support when classes or workshops aren’t easily available. And, finally, pay this support forward. Read a chapbook or collection of poetry (or fiction) from a new author and/or press. Presses always need more readers and you may find a new source of inspiration in the process! A win-win for all.

Order Mary's Chapbook SINGING WITH SIRENS here: 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Guest Post by Mary E. Martin

Exciting news, everyone: today we are being visited by a virtual blog tour celebrating the completion of author Mary E. Martin's second series, The Trilogy of Remembrance. A special welcome to followers of the tour joining us from Book Readers Heaven, and from other sites on the tour.

Followers of the tour have an opportunity to enter in a $200 Amazon gift card giveaway! Entries will be accepted until midnight on August 31, 2015 with an announcement of the winner posted from Mary's Blog on September 1, 2015. Anyone submitting a proof of purchase entry in the giveaway draw will receive as an added benefit the tour purchase incentive rewards package of free e-books and discount coupons donated by tour hosts. For a full tour schedule of events, as well as details on how to enter, visit Mary E. Martin at

You can also tune in to JD Holiday's World of Ink Network interview with Mary and guests, over BlogTalkRadio at


What Makes a Novel Great?

a guest post

by Mary E. Martin

Because everyone has his or her own personal taste, it’s hard to answer this question. What appeals to me, you might consider dull, boring or even downright ridiculous. And of course, vice versa. It’s the same with a painting or a song. Personal taste. I might love Anton Chekhov’s stories and you might think they are too dated to be relevant in today’s world—NOT great for a writer who wrote almost two centuries ago. You love Stephen King, but his work might leave me cold and eventually bored which would not be good for a horror writer.

Does this mean neither writer has written a great novel? Of course not. You can devise all sorts of rules to determine whether a piece of writing is great. Is it a page turner with an interesting plot? Do the characters seem real? All that is helpful, but lots of novels are like that.

Will it be read one hundred years from now? For me, that’s the real test. Unfortunately that means we’ll not be able to apply that test to novels written today. But we can look at the old ones still popular today and try to figure out why we still love them. Some examples? Take any one of Dickens’ novels. Even if you haven’t heard of his novel, Bleak House, I’ll bet you know about Scrooge. Why? Scrooge was such a powerful character and his story was so transfixing that some of us read his novella every Christmas or at least watch the movie. Why? Because the character Scrooge is embedded in the consciousness of popular culture and has been from the beginning.

When I was a child, I was extremely impressed with Alastair Sim’s portrayal of Scrooge. In one of the dream sequences, Scrooge was confronted by an apparition in a long black robe. When he drew it back, small children were huddled underneath representing “ignorance and want.” If that can’t frighten you, what can? What is it about Scrooge that sticks? He’s intensely unlikeable, stingy with a flinty disregard for his fellow man. Do you know anyone like that? Sure you do! He’s your boss. Or maybe he’s even closer to home. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we all have a bit of Scrooge in us.

No one wants to be like Scrooge. When his employee Bob Cratchit tries to speak well of him, we see compassion at work. We all want a world with second chances to do better. It is one of the very best redemption stories ever written which was published just in time for Christmas in 1843 and to this day has never been out of print. With his characters and the dream sequences, the story strikes something very powerful—a universal and timeless chord. The story asks—what does it mean to be human and how do we deal with the many complications of our own nature? The characters are as real to us as our spouse, child, neighbour or—ourselves.

The writer and his characters make us think about what it is to be a human being in the place, time and circumstance he or she is in. And if it is truly universal and timeless, then it may stay with us forever and speak to future generations. The next question is: how to do this? Maybe it’s not so hard. I wonder just how much human beings have changed over the aeons. We still love and hate. We still suffer from greed, ambition, pride, lust, envy, wrath, sloth and gluttony. Paradoxically, at the same time we are still capable of great acts of kindness, forgiveness and love. If you look at that list of failings and attributes, you can easily see hundreds if not thousands of opportunities for terrific stories.

But it’s not just confined to characteristics of humans. Those characteristics drive plots. One of the most fundamental is the quest. Scrooge was dragged through dream sequences which were a hair-raising quest. We often say that Shakespeare’s characters were very powerful. Just think of Macbeth and his Lady. Ambition drove them to murder the King. Lear, the near feeble but once great King, is blinded with pride as he turns upon his daughters. But think what his pride did to him. Because of that foolishness he was turned upon viciously by those who should have loved and cared for him. Old age was never so terrifying!

If we start thinking of our characters and plots as embodying some of these characteristics, they may have a chance to survive. Why? Because humankind has not really changed all that much. In 2015, we will still be captivated by a character who is driven to a bad end by lust or avarice. He or she might be just like that person across the desk from you at work. Or if you look closely, a tiny bit might be found in our own hearts. When we’re writing our stories and want to strive for the top, let’s be thinking about what it means to be human and driven (even mad) by high emotion. Those are the questions to explore when creating our characters and plots if we want them to survive.

BIO: Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing.


Monday, August 10, 2015

Try, Try, Try Again, Try Something New

One of my favorite things is teaching a writing camp every summer in my hometown for kids and teenagers. For a couple hours over two back-to-back weekends, we all sit together in a purple-walled conference room and write. (Still mostly with pen and pencil on notebook paper, although I allow the kids to bring laptops and iPads if they wish. A few do; most opt for old-school notebooks.) I write a prompt on the whiteboard, turn on some Norah Jones or Jack Johnson, and they are off and running.

It’s nothing short of magic, being in that room. It’s calm, peaceful, with a quiet energy buzzing below the surface. You can practically hear the ideas whirring around the room, as surely as you can hear the pencils scratching their ways across sheets of paper. You can feel the ideas, swirling around. This is perhaps my favorite thing I have ever created, my proudest accomplishment—this classroom of young writers.

My writing campers inspire me in so many ways. They are passionate, driven, unabashedly enthusiastic. They are ambitious. (Do you know any 9-year-olds writing 300-page novels? I do!) They are creative, and well-read, and perceptive, and supportive of each other.

Perhaps most of all, these young writers inspire me with the way they embrace new challenges and take risks in order to push themselves to grow. I have taught writing classes for adults as well, and always need to plough through much more resistance before getting down to business. As adults, we too often become set in our ways. We become afraid to try something new because we might not do it the “right” way – we might make mistakes, do something wrong, have to stumble our way through a learning curve. Kids, in general, seem much less concerned about stumbling.

Time and again, I present to my young writers an utterly new idea or wacky concept, intended specifically to push them out of their comfort zones. And what do they do? Embrace the new challenge. They dive right in. My writing campers are adventurers. They explore.

One small example is an activity relating to structuring a short story. My only guideline is for them to try something they have never attempted before. Write a story in reverse chronological order, from the ending to the beginning. Write a story with alternating perspectives of two characters. Write a story from the perspective of an animal, or an insect, or an inanimate object. Write a story in poetic verse.

My amazing students try it all. They inspire me with their bravery. The way they eagerly raise their hands to share the yearnings of their hearts and minds, ideas that they only just scribbled down onto paper moments ago, their just-birthed words still fragile and new—nevertheless, they are unselfconscious and unselfish in their sharing. They are generous, both in confidence and in spirit. When do we lose this, us grown-ups? When do we cross that threshold and become shy, stifled? Why are we so terrified of looking foolish that we keep our voices silent? Why do we stop daring to try?

The inspiring and beautiful book a picture is worth: the voice of today's high school students(Arch Street Press) is an anthology dedicated to the importance of sharing our voices, of being brave enough to shed light on our stories and bare our truths to the world. Featuring personal narrative essays from high school students at the I-LEAD Charter School in Reading, Pennsylvania, each essay in this book is brimming with meaning and relevance -- not only to students and teenagers of today, but for adults as well.

In the book's introduction, David Castro and Alisa del Tufo write:

"By sharing these stories brought to life through the faces and voices of our young learners, ILCS expects to inspire new learning and new educational pathways for their peers. In studying the personal narrative essay, we must question why it should be necessary to reach far away -- to places remote in time and culture -- for strong examples of the essay form. We can make a different choice that contributes highly relevant and engaging content to present school curricula. Powerful stories, shining examples of the personal essay, arise within challenged communities; they spring from the minds and hearts of the learners themselves. We know why. Art and genius beat in every human heart."

Art and genius beat in every human heart.

I could not agree more. We all have the capacity to write down our own stories, share our own lives, create our own magic. You don't need to be a writing camper to do so. You don't need anyone's permission. All you need is a pinch of bravery and the willingness to try, and try, and try again, and try something new.

I don't know about you, but I'm going to smooth a fresh new page in my writer's notebook, turn on some Norah Jones, and get to work writing what matters to me.