Call for Submissions: Write About Your Dog!

It’s probably pretty obvious, but I’ll say it just in case: I love writing and I love dogs. My dogs, Jack, Sadie, Nacho, and Soda, have inspired me in so many areas of my life–including my writing life, and it occurred to me recently that that might be true for a lot of you, your writing, and your dogs, too. So, in honor of my love (and yours!) for my dogs and for writing, I invite you to submit your own original piece of writing for consideration as a guest post on this blog. Before writing and submitting your own piece for consideration, I recommend reading this post as an example of the types of work likely to be accepted. Please do not feel like your submission has to focus on the pandemic; to the contrary, I welcome submissions about any way your dog has ever helped you see the bright side of things, lifted you up, taught you a lesson, cheered you up, kept you going, or made you smile. Posts will be accepted for consideration until 11:59 PM June 16, 2020.

Guest Post Nacho and Soda
My dogs have proven to be extremely inspirational to me. Above, Soda and Nacho take a break from paddleboarding on the Potomac River in the Northern Neck of Virginia.

Submission Guidelines

  1. Writers certify that they are 18 years of age or older.
  2. Prose submissions should consist of 250-550 words and poetry submissions should be 24 lines or fewer.
  3. All submissions should respond to the prompt: Write about how your dog/dogs has/have been a positive presence and influence in your life.
  4. Submissions should include a short bio of the writer, ranging between 50 and 75 words
  5. Submissions can include up to three photos of the dog(s) written about.

    Guest Post Soda
    Soda relaxes on a beach along the Potomac River.
  6. Writers agree to allow their full name, submission, bio, and photos to appear on this blog and the associated Instagram account, as well as on other associated social media accounts.
  7. Writers of accepted submissions agree to spread the word about their guest post on their own social media, including by sharing a link to their published piece on their own social media accounts and/or websites and by tagging the Mind the Dog Writing Blog Instagram account.
  8. All submissions must be original and true.
  9. Submissions may not have been published anywhere else at any time.
  10. Writers retain all rights to their work but are asked to acknowledge Mind the Dog
    Guest Post Nacho
    From the sand, Nacho watches his daddy paddle back to shore.

    Writing Blog as the original publisher should the piece be published elsewhere in the future.

  11. Writers will not be paid, but will be featured on Mind the Dog Writing Blog and the associated Instagram account, including with links and tags to their social media accounts and/or websites.
  12. To submit a piece of writing, your bio, and up to three relevant photos, email your submission to MindtheDogWritingBlog@gmail.com by 11:59 PM June 16.
  13. Please allow at least three weeks after submitting your post for a response.

Don’t like to write or have a dog, but know someone who does? Please share this opportunity with them!

Have questions? Feel free to comment here, DM me on Instagram, or shoot me an email at MindtheDogWritingBlog@gmail. com. I can’t wait to read what you write!

They Really Keep You Going: A Personal Narrative About the Littles

A year ago today, Matty and I saw Soda and Nacho (then Scotch) for the very first time. It would be another month before we saw them again, and before we got to actually meet them, as opposed to just seeing them on the other side of their kennel bars. Because both dogs and writing are extremely therapeutic, and because I love both with an unrivaled intensity, it seems fitting to share here, today, a piece I wrote about the role Nacho and Soda have played in my emotional and mental well-being in the last year, but most particularly, in the last few months. Below is that piece.

It is a quintessential April morning. The air smells faintly of lilac and cut grass, silky-sweet, soft, and verdant. The laser-sharp but soothing call of cardinals cascades down from the trees around us, the birds themselves hidden amongst boughs whose leaves are just emerging, ready for their summer’s work. Normally at this time of the morning, I am at school, helping a group of teenagers work on the yearbook, watching the clock as lunchtime approaches and my stomach clenches.

Soda on the back deck
Soda lounges on the back deck while I work from home.

But schools shut down a month ago, so today, after calling students to check on them and sending them digital copies of next week’s assignments, I am walking my two eighteen-month-old dogs, collectively known as The Littles. They’re a pair of littermates we adopted back in June—back when we could still hug our parents and travel and go to the beach without a second thought about our social responsibility or personal health. Back when things were still normal. Before Covid-19 and its swift sweep around the globe.

I am deep in these thoughts when a neighbor stops his riding lawn mower as we walk by and says to me, “Those two really keep you going, don’t they?” He nods toward Soda and Nacho. I look at the two of them, 15 pounds combined. Their dark brown eyes meet mine, joyous, expectant, eager. His words hold more truth than he knows. I have lost count of the times I have told my husband how lonely I would be without them during this experience. Deprived of my routine, my students, my colleagues, and many of my friends and family members, my daily walks with The Littles are one of the few activities that feels normal, their company the only constant companionship I have during any given day. They are my purpose and structure.

Nacho on the back deck
Nacho rests on the back deck while I work from home.

My two small dogs have helped me become aware of the small pleasures of social distancing, instead of dwelling on the inconvenience and deprivation. Jarring alarm clock wake-ups have been replaced by slow wake-ups occasioned by snuggles and nuzzling noses. We go outside together and sit in the sun because it’s out and we can be, too. They are not confined to the crate; I am not confined to the classroom.

And although small, The Littles have cultivated a big appetite for adventure since I’ve been home. Unable to while away the hours shopping, going to movies, staying after school for meetings, or running errands, we have found time to explore secluded trails we didn’t know existed, often traipsing much longer and farther than I thought their short, little legs might carry them. We have stopped and stared at great egrets, blue herons, water snakes, turtles, deer.

We have also found time for learning. While we work together as they learn basics like “sit,” “stay,” “down,” “come,” and “leave it,” I learn to slow down. To give myself and others grace. To digest one day at a time instead of flipping through the pages of my

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The Littles, Soda (left) and Nacho (right), relax after a morning walk.

planner to August, and realizing every single weekend is booked until then. To be flexible in the uncertainty—because things are pretty backwards now. I used to make every effort to keep Nacho and Soda out of their crate; after all, they spent enough time there while we worked during the day. Now, we conduct near-daily “crate practice” to make sure that someday, when I start working somewhere other than the couch again, they will remember that the crate is a safe place, and that I will be home. I manufacture reasons to do this—to leave the house so The Littles can practice being without me. Sometimes I go for a jog or ride my bike, sit in the sun with a book, stroll a route The Littles aren’t fond of. They have given me this gift—permission to engage in soul-nurturing activities, time to relish the solitude I rarely had time for before. And when I get home, and crate practice is over, I am so glad it is not an empty house I return to, but one filled with the contagious exuberance and affection and companionship of two tiny dogs with two enormous spirits.

The gentle rumble of my neighbor’s idling mower brings me back to the present moment. I stand on the sidewalk. He looks at me expectantly from his seat, probably glad to speak to someone new for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long. It takes me just a second to remember he is waiting for my response. “Those two really keep you going, don’t they?” he’d said.

I smile at him. “Yes,” I say. I smile at them, the little dogs who make staying home better, and give me reasons to get out. “They do. They really do.”

I invite you to share in the comments how your own pets have helped you stay positive–now or any time.

 

 

One, Green Row

Writers, at least those of us with a desire to share or publish our work, need a thick skin. There are always people with ideas pertaining to how we could improve our writing. Some of them are right. Some of them are not. There are always publications that will

Submission Spreadsheet
My record of 2020 submissions thus far

reject our writing–many more than will accept it. For years, I have kept color-coded records of the work I have sent out into the world in hopes of seeing it published. Red indicates a piece has been rejected, white indicates that its publication is still pending (Read: I haven’t heard anything back–yet), blue indicates that it has made it through some initial phase of the acceptance process, and green indicates it has been officially accepted for publication. Consistently, red (in other contexts one of my favorite colors) dominates my submission spreadsheets. So far, 2020 hasn’t proven an exception to this seeming rule. Above is my submission spreadsheet for 2020 thus far. You will note a whole lot of red. And one–one–row of green.

But that single row of green means everything–means more than the over a dozen red rows. That single row of green means the one piece that I most wanted to find a publication home, did. The original version of this piece, “A Search for Meaning in the Face of Loss,” appears on this blog. An abridged version, retitled “Always With Me, Still,” will appear in an upcoming edition of Chicken Soup for the Soul, Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Dogs, available at bookstores on July 14.

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The cover of Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Dogs, available in bookstores July 14. A story I wrote about Jack, which also features Sadie, will appear in this book.

The piece, the third about Jack and Sadie to appear in a Chicken Soup book, details the many ways in which Jack is still with me, leaving me signs (usually socks), comforting me, communicating with me, making me smile. Though I initially wrote this piece about a year ago, signs from Jack have not stopped materializing, and I am near-to-tears happy that the story of his ability to stay by my side will be able to reach thousands of readers around the world.

Ever since I submitted the piece in November 2019, I have held close to my heart the hope that it would be accepted. As the January 2020 submission deadline approached, I became increasingly eager to hear whether it would be included. My husband has probably lost count of the number of times I earnestly voiced my hopes, but as he shared them, he was patient with me.

Yes, I am disappointed about the pieces that, so far, remain homeless–but I will continue searching for their homes, and in the meantime, the red rows on my submission spreadsheet pale in comparison to that one, green row.

 

 

Five Reasons I Write

I’ve gotten a lot of rejection e-mails lately. Like, a lot. From literary agents, websites, and magazines. It happens. Rejection is commonplace when you write, in part, to get published. Still, it’s pretty painful to hit what you think is a homerun only to have it caught in the outfield.

Lots of writers will tell you–wisely–that rejection letters can be a sign of productivity, and even success. At a Writing Show I recently chaired, one of the panelists even said during her first year freelancing, she made it her goal to get as many rejections as possible. Hey–if you’re getting rejection letters, that means you’re writing, right? And getting your stuff out there. Hey–if an outfielder catches your homerun, that means you’re swinging the bat, right? And you hit the ball. So, kudos. Rejections are just a reality of the write life. But that doesn’t make them feel any better than it feels to hear the umpire holler “out” before you’ve even reached first base, certain of your homerun status.

While I wholeheartedly subscribe to the idea that rejections mean I am writing and putting my writing out there, and are thus their own form of validation–it also helps me to remember that, while I do have publishing goals, I write for many other reasons, as well.

1. Leaving a Legacy

I don’t have children. I don’t plan on having children. Any legacy I leave will be in the form of literature. Each piece of writing I produce, I leave behind for my nieces to read someday, for my nephews to read someday. For someone I have never met to read someday.

2. Telling People’s Stories

In addition to leaving my own legacy, I write to tell other people’s stories. I tell the stories of people who can’t, for one reason or another, tell their own–or, sadder still, people who don’t even realize their story is worth telling. I have an almost insatiable curiosity about others. I love hearing their stories. Most of the time, people don’t realize how interesting they really are. I want them to know–and then I want to tell everyone else, too.

3. Empowering and Educating People

I like to think the stories I tell, whether my own or others’, empower and enlighten the people who read them. I hope when people read stories like Carlos Rivadeneira’s and Mary Setzer’s and Larry Gable’s, they find hope and strength and perseverance. I hope when they read stories like Ashley Unger’s, they broaden their understanding and capacity for compassion, as well as find self-worth. I hope my stories connect people, build community, inform people, and enhance people’s sense of belonging and place.

4. Immortalizing Loved Ones

I write about the people and animals I love, because that is the best way I know to keep them alive. If I write about someone, she is not only alive in my memory, but also in the mind of anyone who reads what I wrote. It is the best way I can think of to honor the people and animals I love. Writing is my gift, more so than any other means of expression. I love to use it to memorialize my loved ones.

5. Serving Others

One of the most fulfilling aspects of writing is its ability to help me give back–to my community, to worthy organizations that have enhanced my experience or life, to people I care about, to the world. I haven’t yet found a way–written or otherwise–to express how satisfying it has been to use my essay, “The Reward,” in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog to raise money for the Richmond SPCA, Richmond Animal League (RAL), and Bay Quarter Shores. I experience a similar sense of satisfaction each time I work with a friend to produce an article, complete with stellar photographs. I find helping my photographer friends gain experience and exposure (no pun intended!) fulfilling, and the sense of collaboration and teamwork is exceptionally rewarding and, well, just plain fun!

While rejection after rejection can be disheartening, to say the least, I find it helpful to remember that while I do want my work published, I write for a myriad of other reasons, as well–not the least of which is the fact that I am simply compelled to do so, even if I strike out sometimes. More often than not, though, after I write something–anything–I am left with the same delicious sense of satisfaction produced by the sound of a ball smacking into a glove when I am the outfielder.

If you’d like to help the latest additions to our pack, Soda and Nacho (we call them The Littles), and I continue to support RAL, please consider making a donation here before 8:00 PM EST on August 17.

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Nacho (left) and Soda (right) are littermates Matty and I adopted from the Richmond SPCA on June 22. They are almost eight months old, and are ready to start giving back! Please help them raise money for the dogs and cats at Richmond Animal League by donating to their calendar contest page.

The Effect of Recent Success: More Drive

If you’re a writer and you submit your work for publication with any sort of regularity, you’re probably pretty familiar with rejection. In fact, sometimes it feels like being a writer is synonymous with being really, really good at handling rejection. Our resiliency may make us seem like gluttons for punishment, constantly risking our art and our hearts only to be told it’s just not good enough–if not in kinder, more professional words. Fending off discouragement can be daunting, but if we’re lucky, our well-practiced resiliency allows us to persevere with a kind of cultivated optimism–that shoot- for-the-moon-even-if-you-miss-you’ll-land-among-the-stars hope we read on inspirational posters in our high school classrooms.

This spring, my perseverance paid off (as it does, every now and again–though not as often as I’d like). Typically, really exciting successes spread themselves out over rather vast expanses of time, but this spring, I experienced two back-to-back successes, one in March and one in April.

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I accept my award at the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association’s Annual Conference in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In March, I was thrilled when the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA), a professional writing group I recently joined, recognized my piece, “Rescued bird teaches lesson on where to find home,” originally published in The Richmond Times-Dispatch, with second place in the Outstanding Column category of the Excellence in Craft Contest. My parents and husband were able to celebrate with me on March 24, joining me at a lovely awards ceremony held at the DoubleTree Hotel in Charlottesville, Virginia, where we were treated to a delicious lunch and several writing and photography presentations.

On April 28, two of my close friends, my parents, and I (my husband had to work) made the trip to Somerset, Virginia, to savor the beautiful scenery at The Market at Grenlen, the perfect setting for the Poetry Society of Virginia‘s Annual Contest Award Ceremony and Poetry Reading. I was so excited for my poem, “Salem’s Indifferent Ox,” to receive second place in the Nancy Byrd category of the contest. I was honored to be given the opportunity to share my poem with fellow poets, winners, and their families and friends, as well as breathtakingly impressed by the other winners’ poems. It was truly an inspirational, enlightening event, and I will be thrilled if I am ever invited back again, not only because it will mean another of my poems will have been recognized, but also because it will expose me to the stellar work of some of the most talented poets in the state.

Salem’s Indifferent Ox

I’ve stood in my pasture watching for days

as the townsmen with hammers, they pounded,

until from the ground a wooden platform was raised

and the drumroll, through the village sounded.

Then they fetched me—how could I be involved

in this mysterious venture of theirs?

But I plod through the town, no question resolved,

Wondering at their strange mumbled prayers.

The wagon is heavy, my cargo, it weeps

with the people standing by in the crowd.

I watch as they climb the handcrafted steps,

clinging to dignity, proud.

Then they clutch at the ropes—tighter and tighter—

and on my way home, my cargo is lighter.

To view the reading of my poem on April 28, 2018, click here.

So, why am I telling you all this? Well, I’ll admit it’s in part because I’m proud and excited and I wanted to brag. I mean share. But it’s more so because these two consecutive successes with mere weeks between them had an unexpected effect on me. Instead of

WOW Logo
I read my second-place poem at the Poetry Society of Virginia’s Award Luncheon.

stopping at pride and ecstasy and validation, these two experiences made me feel like I can’t just sit back and rest on my laurels;  I have to keep going. Instead of just basking in the warm sunshine of success, I feel the need to pursue more opportunities to achieve it. I think the only achievement that might satiate my hunger for further writing success would be holding my two manuscripts after they have been reborn as books.  Yes, the pressure is on to continue to perform at this level–even though I know what I am really asking for is more rejection with a few successes sprinkled in between.

 

Writing Goals: Reflecting on 2017 and the “Write” Now

At the end of 2016, I composed a post detailing my 2017 Writing Resolutions. Now that 2017 has given way to 2018, and I have had a little time to reflect on the literary accomplishments of the last year, I admit it seems last year’s goals may have been a bit ambitious for me. But, I mean, that’s sort of the point, right? That whole shoot for the moon and land among the stars thing? Anyway… Here they are, the resolutions and the realities, side by side:

2017 Writing Resolutions

2017 Writing Realities

Write a diary entry at least once a week.

I came close here, writing almost every Friday when my students wrote in their journals, and every other Wednesday when Creative Writing Club wrote. I probably averaged once a week.

Compose and publish a blog post at least twice a month (preferably, once a week).

That was clearly too ambitious…

Read at least one book on craft per quarter.

I failed pretty miserably at this. It’s hard for me to find time to read during the school year (unless the material is student papers), and I traveled a lot this summer. I read the first chapter or so of Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, and I’ll finish it eventually.

Submit writing to various publications at least once a month.

I did submit writing to lots of publications—but not once a month; instead, my submission habits were pretty sporadic.

Make a concerted effort to find representation for Goodbye for Now.

I queried about one agent per week from January through March and pitched to someone I thought was an agent, but who turned out to be an editor, at the James River Writers Annual Conference in October.

Research self-publishing.

I didn’t really do this, short of some cursory internet grazing.

Attend conferences, talks, and workshops as schedule allows.

I succeeded here, attending all three days of the James River Writers Annual Conference and two, six-week Life in 10 Minutes workshops.

So, as the chart makes plain, some of my resolutions were very successful, some…not as much–but I wouldn’t call any of them complete failures. Plus, a lot of support for my writing cropped up unexpectedly in 2017, and I was pretty darn good about jumping on those opportunities as they arose. In fact, taking advantage of those unexpected opportunities was sometimes the reason my resolutions went by the wayside.

2017’s Unexpected Writing Adventures and Successes

  1. A deluge of freelance writing jobs, some short-term, some still in effect today.
  2. A surprisingly large amount of work accepted for publication in magazines, newspapers, and anthologies, as well as on websites.
  3. An invitation to become a member of the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA).
  4. An invitation to attend the VOWA summer celebration.
  5. Becoming the new chairperson for the VOWA Collegiate Undergraduate Writing/Photo Competition.
  6. Acceptance into Vitality Float Spa‘s Writing Program.

2018: What I’m Doing “Write” Now

The last week or so, I’ve been a little disappointed in myself for not having set any writing goals for 2018, but it occurs to me now that, without necessarily planning on it, I’ve already begun to nurture my writing for this year. Earlier this week, I submitted three short stories to two different literary magazines, wrote a diary entry, and renewed my James River Writers membership. Today, I entered six pieces of my writing in three different categories of the VOWA Excellence-in-Craft Contest and composed this blog post. Next week, I start a year-long novel-writing class at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. That’s right–every Wednesday for an entire year, I will stay up way past my bedtime, all in the name of writing. Now, if that’s not dedication (you don’t know me after 9:00 pm…), I don’t know what is. In addition, I’m currently judging student writing for the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, an experience I enjoy every year. I’ve even already spent some time looking for some fresh freelance projects.

Looking Ahead

While I don’t have any specific, measurable goals laid out for my writing in 2018, I do know my novel-writing class begins next week. And I do know I will continue to write at least four articles per month for ScoutKnows.com. I also plan to continue–dare I say finish?–revising Goodbye For Now; write in my diary somewhat regularly; submit my writing to various publications; and attend the 2018 James River Writers Annual Conference. Oh, and I’ll take advantage of any unexpected opportunities that come my way, too!

Happy New Year!

Creativity in Different Contexts

I would not say I am facing writer’s block. No, not exactly. I am still writing: blog posts, diary entries, college reference letters, the occasional short personal narrative.

But I cannot seem to type the first word of a novel for NaNoWriMo. I have several loose, underdeveloped ideas, not one of which has coalesced into anything remotely resembling a plot. In the face of this complete (but hopefully temporary) dearth of cohesive ideas for another novel, I had begun to feel tempted to wonder if maybe I’m not, after all, a creative person. The identity crisis this admission would lead to would be nothing short of catastrophic, though, so rather than give in to the temptation to see myself as, well, not myself, I decided to take inventory of my creativity. Essentially, I had to remind myself that while my primary means of creative expression is indeed the written word, I am creative in many other ways, as well: photography, painting, lesson planning, and re-purposing–as well as writing. The resulting morale booster is below. Maybe now that I have reaffirmed my creative ability, I can conjure up an idea for NaNoWriMo…

Novel ideas in any context fall under the umbrella of creativeness.

Photography

I admit to knowing absolutely nothing about the mechanical technicalities of photography–I cannot, for example, work a real camera, nor can I develop film, nor am I exactly proficient at photography programs like Photoshop. I do, however, know a bit about the art of actually composing a quality photograph. I am no stranger to concepts like perspective, the leading line, framing, or the rule of thirds, for example–and naturally used many of these techniques before ever learning they were “actually things.”

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The unedited photo above, taken on the shore of Lake Michigan in Covert, Michigan, in early in August, demonstrates the principle of the leading line. The wooden walkway disappearing around the bend acts as the natural entrance into the photograph, and, in a twist of luck, the curve of the clouds above matches the curve of the walkway and shoreline below.
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This photograph, also unedited, taken on the shore of Lake Huron in Lexington, Michigan, in mid-August, demonstrates perspective, the rule of thirds, and something of a leading line, with the railing leading from the upper right corner of the shot, out towards the water.

Painting

Though I haven’t taken an art class since middle school, I have always enjoyed art. I rarely get to paint, but when I do, I find the act cathartic and liberating. It is one of the most relaxing, freeing, and expressive activities I have experienced.

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I painted the above piece during my freshman year of college at Michigan State.  I laid the canvas on the floor of my room, and painted it using, if I remember correctly, paper towels–and maybe some plastic grocery bags! I was too destitute to afford paint, canvas, and paintbrushes, so I improvised. The painting hung on my college bedroom wall throughout my undergraduate career, and currently hangs in our kitchen. People who see it often compare it to Van Gogh’s Starry Night, a compliment I am humbled and happy to receive.  
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Most recently–this past spring–a friend and I turned our backyard rain barrels into canvases, transforming the drab black barrels into works of art. We spent roughly five hours with our husbands and my dogs in my husband’s hand-built, custom backyard workshop/shed/garage one Sunday, painting, talking, listening to music, and enjoying the fresh air as it blew through the open garage door. Above you see the barrels before our artistic efforts, and below, after. My friend’s is on the left, and mine is on the right. As with the first painting, several people have compared my rain barrel to Starry Night. I was trying to make it look like a jar of fireflies…
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When I was away at college in Michigan, I deeply missed Virginia Beach, a place I visited often during my high school years. This painting, which for a while was displayed on the mantel in my college home, alongside some paintings I convinced my roommates to compose with me, was my attempt at expressing my love for the boardwalk and beach. I also tried to work with perspective. Anyone who knows me and sees this painting immediately recognizes it is Virginia Beach.

Repurposing

When we think of creativity, we tend automatically to think of the act of creating something from scratch, and by default jump to activities like painting, sculpting, writing, singing, jewelry-making. But novel ideas in any context fall under the umbrella of creativeness. Finding a new use for an old item is its own form of creativeness. Both my husband and I excel in this area–perhaps he more than I, as he is actually capable of making new things out of old things, whereas I am only capable of envisioning what new things the old things could become. Our home is full of many of his creations, usually lamps, made of old gears, driftwood, piping, tripods, factory equipment, antique toys, old instruments, etc.

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An old, wooden road sign my sister and I salvaged from a burn pile in rural Vermont is now featured as wall decor in my husband’s and my bedroom, particularly appropriate because I am a high school teacher.
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A second wooden road sign, pulled from the same burn pile in rural Vermont, now hangs above our stairway, pointing the way to the family room and kitchen when one arrives at the bottom of the stairs.
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My husband fashioned the table lamp above from a piece of partially charred driftwood he found on the beach in the Northern Neck of Virginia. The small brass duck perched on the wood, he bought at an antique store in Kentucky, originally to sit atop the motor of his hot rod, where it did indeed spend several years tooling around Virginia and North Carolina in the open air. When he sold the hot rod, the duck found a new, less mobile perch on the base of this lamp.

James River Writers Annual Conference 2016

In his essay “Why Soldiers Won’t Talk,” John Steinbeck surmises that one reason a soldier can return to battle despite the traumas of war, and a woman can bear more than one child despite the ravages of labor and delivery, is simply because neither can

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Every October, James River Writers puts on their Annual Conference at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

remember what the experience was like, rendering both incapable of experiencing the fear that might prevent them from entering into a similar experience again. “Perhaps,” he writes, “all experience which is beyond bearing is that way–the system provides the shield and removes the memory.” I think there is some validity to Steinbeck’s hypothesis. I see it evidenced in my own life, in at least two areas. The first is my husband’s willingness–eagerness, even–to engage in DIY home projects over and over again, despite the stress and anxiety they inevitably cause him. Not long after completing one painful project, he starts to get antsy for another–to the extent that we just purchased a second home, in part to help satisfy his craving for projects (and he is now completely embroiled in the pangs of a plethora of home projects). The second is my own experience with writing conferences, my favorite and the most accessible one to me being the James River Writers Annual Conference. I look forward to this three-day event with an enthusiasm approaching that of a young child’s at Christmas. But some years, I leave feeling defeated and discouraged: There are so many writers out there with so many stellar ideas, and we are all in competition for an agent, a publisher, a paycheck. I look around at the sheer number of writers in attendance at the conference and think: How can I possibly stand a chance against so many competitors? Frankly, it’s deflating.

 We come together as a community of writers to support each other, encourage each other, help each other. We have not gathered in the spirit of competition; we have gathered in the spirit of community.

But at Friday’s pre-conference Master Class, “How to Hook an Agent–From the Query Letter Through the Opening Pages,” literary agent Michael Carr said something that helped me realize at least one reason (there are many) I look forward to the conference every year: “It’s important to get motivation from events like this.” He went on to explain that so much of a writer’s work is done in isolation. And when we finish a piece we are really proud of, we send it off–most of the time only to face rejection after rejection. And yes, of course, that is a very defeating experience. But at a writing conference, we crawl out of our writing caves and come together. We are among people who take us seriously as writers. We convene as a community of writers to support each other, encourage each other, help each other. We have not gathered in the spirit of competition; we have gathered in the spirit of community. And it is in that spirit of the writer’s community that I share with you just a handful of highlights and takeaways from this weekend’s James River Writers Annual Conference.

For reference and in an effort to give credit where credit is due, here is a list of the sessions I attended:

Friday

Saturday

Sunday

On Revising

Sentence Structure

Be sure to vary your sentence structure. Reusing the same sentence structure can pull the reader out of your narrative, or, as Michael Carr explains it, can “wake him up from the fictive dream.” Two structures that Carr says are frequently overused, particularly by amateur writers are: 1) “Doing this, she did this” or 2) its inverse: “She did this, doing this.”

So much of a writer’s work is done in isolation. And when we finish a piece we are really proud of, we send it off–most of the time only to face rejection after rejection. And yes, of course, that is a very defeating experience. But at a writing conference, we crawl out of our writing caves and come together.

Tension

Each scene of a novel needs tension to hold a reader’s interest. Some ways to introduce tension can include giving the character a goal–and creating a character who actively engages in reaching this goal, as opposed to passively waiting for things to happen to him. Secondly, there must be some opposition regarding the goal. Something must impede the character’s achieving the goal he has set. Another tool in the writer’s belt is dramatic irony. The reader’s experience of knowing more than the characters about which she is reading is a powerful means of creating tension. Finally, be sure to ask yourself if there is enough at stake. What will the consequences be if the character achieves his goal versus if he does not achieve his goal?

The Opening Lines

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Bill Blume moderated the First Page panel Sunday morning. During this session, several writers’ page-ones are read allowed and critiqued by three literary agents.

At least three different experts at the conference exaggerated the importance of starting in the right place, which could be as simple as deleting the first line or first paragraph, or as complicated as rearranging the order in which your chapters appear–as was the case with my novel. Initially, Goodbye For Now opened with Marissa Donnoway working at The Beanery, serving a difficult customer. Several people mentioned that the book started a bit too slowly. In response, I wrote a new scene, one in which two brothers are looking out over Lake Huron. Still too slow. I deleted that scene, and opened the book with the emergency room scene. That didn’t work logistically, and the book currently begins with Scott Wilder’s suicide.

Feedback

If your published book receives a bad review, it’s not because your book was bad; it’s because the reader expected one thing, but got another.

Keep in mind that when beta readers, critique partners, critique groups, or other readers offer feedback, you are not obligated to take it–but deciding when and if you should follow someone’s advice can be tricky, and sometimes, so can not getting our feelings hurt. I thought Michael Carr’s comments regarding this issue were an insightful reframing of how to look at criticism. He essentially suggested that when someone responds critically to your work, it simply means he woke up from the fictive dream and didn’t “believe you.” It is not personal. It means you might want to revisit that part of your piece and consider how you can strengthen it. Sometimes, a reader might suggest a specific change to improve a piece–a change you disagree with. It’s important to keep in mind that you do not have to act on specific advice, but you would likely be wise to address the issue in some way, even if it is not the way your critic suggested. Carr also advised, “If the feedback resonates with you, address it. If it doesn’t, don’t.” Specific feedback itself might not be worth following, but reexamining each part about which a reader makes suggestions is worthwhile. In my case, the people who told me my book started too slowly only confirmed what I had suspected all along–so I addressed that issue (many times…).

I also appreciated what Natasha Sass of Busstop Press said about feedback: If your published book receives a bad review, it’s not because your book was bad; it’s because the reader expected one thing, but got another. More on this, in the context of tropes, below.

On Writing to Market and Finding Your Audience

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Master Class “Writing Smarter, Faster, and to Market,” led by Natasha Sass, delivered on its promise, living up to its title. 

Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit it, but until attending Friday’s Master Class,
“Writing Smarter, Faster, and to Market: Game-Changing Tips for Indie Authors (and Writers who Want to Up Their Game NOW!”, I was unfamiliar with the term “trope.” Now I know a trope is essentially an expected element of a genre or subgenre. Tropes can include point of view, format, character types, themes, settings, plot devices, pacing, etc. In order to engage your audience, your writing has to deliver the promised tropes of your genre. The tricky part is that tropes change over time, so reading within your genre and subgenre can be an important way to keep up with what tropes are currently desirable in your area.
What does your audience want? What do they expect?

A trope is essentially an expected element of a genre or subgenre. Tropes can include point of view, format, character types, themes, settings, plot devices, pacing, etc. In order to engage your audience, your writing has to deliver the promised tropes of your genre.

On Inspiration

Two important notions occurred to me as I sat in a session today, the final day of this year’s Annual Conference. The first was that this year was quite possibly my favorite Annual Conference thus far (though they have all been wonderful). The second was that I would likely have never finished my novel, Goodbye For Now, had it not been for the 2014 James River Writers Annual Conference. The idea for my novel was born in 2006, when I was studying abroad in Germany–an ocean away from my then-fiance (now, husband). I began actually writing the novel in 2010 (I think) in a black-and-white Composition book. After a few weeks, I got busy and just stopped writing. I even lost the Composition book. Four years later, at a Master Class that was part of the 2014 Annual Conference, I read aloud the synopsis I composed in the workshop that day. The response I got from the instructor and my fellow attendees was so supportive, I came home and dug through my attic space until I found the Composition book. My desire to write the novel was reinvigorated, but it would likely have remained dormant, safely stored away in my mental attic, had I never attended the conference. Now, two years later, the sixth draft of my novel is complete, and I feel equally excited, motivated, inspired, and encouraged. And I already can’t wait until next year’s conference.

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When I returned home from the third and final day of the conference this afternoon, I spent over an hour nestled in my backyard hammock, snuggling with my whippet and reflecting on all I had learned–only the tiniest fraction of which I had the time to relate in this blog post.

Five Prompts to Vanquish Writer’s Block

Among the quotes displayed on posters on my classroom walls, one of the most relevant to my students, particularly when they begin (or try to begin) writing their research papers or college essays is this:

“Not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. Begin anywhere.”

It sounds so simple. Sit down. Pick up a pen or set your fingers to the keyboard, and go. Begin. Let the words flow. And truly, it can be that simple–but we writers all know the feeling of sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper or a glowing, white computer screen, the urge to write almost unbearable, only to fall victim to this sort of constipation of our creativity. No matter how hard we try, the right words–or any words at all–simply will. Not. Come. We are paralyzed in the face of our immense ideas, or by the sense that despite our need to write, we have no ideas.

Below are five writing prompts to help alleviate the uncomfortable sensation of writer’s block.

1. Unlived Lives

Throughout our lives, we are presented with choices, from the seemingly mundane, such as what to eat for breakfast or what to wear on a given day, to the more obviously life-altering, such as what college to attend or whom to marry. For this prompt, imagine your life had you made “the other” decision. What might have happened if you had taken that months-long road trip with your best friend instead of attending your first semester of college–what would your life be like now? Imagine the life you would be living had you married the first boy you ever loved (never mind that he never asked, like you thought he would). Imagine the life you would be living if you had not aborted the child who would’ve been your first born. What other lives, good or bad, have you had–but forgone in favor of another–the chance to live?

2. Dear Future Self

For this prompt, write a letter to your future self, as far or as near in the future as you like. What kinds of things will you hope for your future self? What kinds of questions will you ask? What will you hope you remember? What will you hope to have forgiven, accomplished, forgotten, experienced?

3. To-Do List

Take an objective look at your to-do list today. Write about what someone would think of you based solely upon that list. If all someone had to imagine the kind of person you are was today’s to-do list, what would he think? Consider the hobbies, obligations, jobs, activities, interests he might imagine you have or are involved with.

4. Another’s View of You

Imagine yourself from the perspective of someone else. Perhaps take on the view of the checkout girl who rang you up at the local grocery store, the man in the car beside you at the traffic light, the neighbor who passes you on his bike as you walk your dog. What do these people notice about you, think about you, infer about you, wonder about you? Take on the perspective of someone else, and write about yourself in third-person from this new perspective.

5. Names

Start the prompt with “My name should have been…” and let your ideas flow. What should your name have been? Why?

 The next time you experience the painful paralysis of writer’s block, I invite you to employ one (or all!) of these prompts. If you’re feeling really inspired, I invite you to post your written response to one (or more!) of these prompts in a comment on this post.

Happy writing!

My Writing Dreams

A few days ago, fellow W.O.W blogger and friend, Charlene Jimenez, and I decided we could boost our writing morale by composing posts detailing our wildest (but hopefully not out of reach) writing dreams. Charlene posted hers yesterday, so check out her writing goals, too!

Recently I’ve realized that I would get more sleep if I had less ambition and, ironically enough, fewer dreams–at least of the variety that I want to turn into reality. In an attempt to maintain my motivation, and remind myself why I keep trading sleep for writing, here are my writing dreams, no holds barred!

November, 2018

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My whippet balls up close as I work on my novel late last fall. In my writing dreams, I get to do this every day. And someone pays me for it.

After a long morning walk with my dogs followed by a three-ish mile jog and a hot shower, I settle in under a plush blanket with some loose leaf hot tea. My beagle is snuggled into her lush dog bed on the floor. My whippet’s warm little body leans into my thigh. My laptop whirs quietly on my lap. I open it and log onto my blog, where I spend thirty minutes to an hour responding to the dozens (maybe hundreds!) of comments a handful of my several thousand followers have left on my last few posts. My tea cooling and my legs growing stiff, I ask my dogs if they “wanna go for a walk.” Tails wagging, they are all too eager. We take a brisk stroll through the neighborhood, and return to the couch, where I read and comment on a few of my favorite blogs before checking my social media for a few minutes. Before I have time to see how much revenue my blog has generated this month, my cell phone rings. It’s my agent.

“I’ve got the best news for you since finding a publisher for Goodbye For Now last year.”

Sitting up a little straighter, I anxiously scratch behind my whippet’s ear. That was pretty good news, and I am not really sure she can top it.

“I’m listening,” I tell her.

“It’s gonna be a movie!” She is practically screaming. I can almost see her now, both hands flailing, smile broad and toothy, eyes squeezed shut, muscles tense with excitement–and I wonder where she is, who can actually see her, and how, with all the hand flailing, she has managed not to drop her cell phone yet.

“What? What is?” Surely she isn’t telling me my debut novel, Goodbye For Now, published roughly one year ago, is going to appear on the big screen.

But she is. That is exactly what she’s telling me.

“And there’s more,” she breathes.

What could be more? My blog has gone viral. My recreational writing classes are always well-attended. My novel is published. My novel is going to become a movie. And there’s more?

Terry Gross wants to schedule an interview with you on NPR‘s Fresh Air!”

It takes an inhuman effort for me to control myself, and I can’t wait to get off the phone so I can stop trying, and start dancing around the family room and kitchen, both dogs hovering around my feet, the sound of their little talons on the hardwood and tile floors musical and festive.

January, 2020

(Note: I have no idea how long making a movie actually takes…)

Yesterday was my 36th birthday. Today, I will walk down the red carpet, my husband and dogs (I insisted they be allowed to come–family, after all) by my side, to see the movie premier of the book I wrote. I don’t know how to confirm this is my reality–this is my life. For so long it was a sometimes elusive-seeming dream. But it was a dream I never stopped believing in, never stopped working for, never stopped loving to dream. And maybe all that is what has made today–has made this life of mine–possible.

And the best part? It’s not over. I have a new novel in the works; an anthology of poetry due out in the spring, when I will spend several weeks in Florida with my sister’s family; a collection of personal narratives about to come out; a few articles set to run in The New York Times and The Atlantic, along with some other, smaller publications; and book signings, writing conferences, and lectures at schools and libraries pepper my calendar. And of course there will be those quiet days of peaceful writing, the dogs cuddling beside me, the candles burning, and maybe, on a really special day, a few flakes of snow drifting down in a sort of choreographed chaos outside my window.

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The sunrise over Lake Huron, as viewed from the breakwater in Lexington, Michigan, in August 2015. In my writing dreams, I get to spend a couple weeks each summer writing and reading along these shores.
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A view of the sound in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where I often walk my dogs. If my writing dreams come true, this is another place I would spend days at a time reading and writing–and getting paid for both.
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The Potomac River in the Northern Neck of Virginia, just before it opens up into the Chesapeake Bay, as photographed this July. In my writing dreams, I get to spend weeks on this beach, or nearby, reading and writing and walking my dogs.

Come summer, I will take a break from formal appearances and teaching classes I designed to take my writing on the road, spending a few weeks writing on the shores of Lake Huron in Lexington, Michigan, taking sunrise and sunset strolls on the breakwater with my dogs. Then, we’ll head to the sound side of the Outer Banks, where I will read and write from the screened porch overlooking the sound, the sun dipping into its waters just before disappearing, the frogs and bugs ushering in the moonlight. And of course I will spend countless days indulging my literary habits on my back deck at home in the sunshine, and in the rural Northern Neck of Virginia, home to farmers and fishermen alike.

April, 2034

My niece sits on a train somewhere in Europe, a few weeks into her study abroad adventure. Across the train car from her, a woman is reading a novel, Auf Wiedersehen fuer jetzt. My niece smiles, the homesickness she had been feeling just a few minutes before assuaged, at least for now. The woman glances up and their eyes meet. My niece smiles warmly, and the woman smiles back, over the top of her book.

“My aunt wrote that book,” my niece tells her over the clamor of the train, the landscape outside the window behind the woman a blur of green fields and gray skies, just brush strokes of color speeding by.

The woman sets the book down on her lap, keeping her place with a finger.

“Wirklich? Deine Tante?” Her eyes glimmer with star-struck disbelief.

“Ja. Meine Tante.” My niece nods, the warmth of pride and a sense of never being alone swelling up in her chest.

July, 2090

A great grandnephew I have never met browses a used bookstore in downtown Richmond. He and his girlfriend pull books off the shelf, smelling the pages and flipping curiously through them. His girlfriend pulls a book off the shelf, its pages yellowed, its cover well worn. She flips the pages  with her thumb, holds the book in front of her face, and takes a deep breath. The cover catches my great grandnephew’s eyes.

“Hey,” he says, gently taking the book from her hands. He turns the front cover towards her. “Look at this.” He points to the name of the author at the bottom.

“Amanda Sue Creasey,” his girlfriend slowly reads. “Creasey like you. Do you know her?”

“No. She died right before I was born, but she’s my great aunt.”

“Wow…” His girlfriend takes the book back. “That’s really cool.”

“It was made into a movie and everything.”

“Really? We need to buy this book–and we should watch that movie tonight.”

My great grandnephew smiles.

“Okay,” he says.

As they wait in the checkout line, the book held tightly against my great grandnephew’s chest, his girlfriend turns to him.

“Hey,” she says, “don’t you like to write, too?”

May all our writing dreams come true!