Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Reading Beyond the Lines

As a writer and storyteller, I love exploring how artists use different media to tell stories – books, poetry, music, painting, plays, movies. Each medium teases a different part of our brain. Some allow us to be more passive (movies) while others require us to be more engaged (“reading” a painting or photograph).

The National Gallery of Art’s website says this about reading paintings:

With a book we have to imagine the scene, whereas with a painting it is created for us (as it is with a film). So when we read a book, we convert, via our imaginations, what is black and white on the page into multicolour images. In this way, the visual image is immediately accessible and engaging. Secondly, due to the artist's distillation of the subject matter into a single image, a painting requires a longer look than is usual in our digital culture.

Take a moment to view the Toulouse-Lautrec painting “The Two Friends.” The artist invites us to compose the story behind his original rendering of oil paint on wood. We might see a woman comforting a friend whose husband has died. Or perhaps, the woman got caught in a downpour and her friend is warming her up with a shawl. The exciting part is that we can make up a different story on each subsequent viewing. The painting lives in our imaginations as much as it does in the finished painting.

Music, too, is a powerful (and lasting) way to tell a story because of the way our brains respond to it.

Daniel Levitin, a psychologist who studies the neuroscience of music at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, believes the structures that respond to music in the brain evolved earlier than the structures that respond to language. He points out that many of our ancestors, before there was writing, used music to help them remember things, such as how to prepare foods or the way to get to a water source. These procedural tasks would have been easier to remember as songs. Today, we still use songs to teach children things in school, like the 50 states.

Today, I can still recite the Preamble to the Constitution by heart because of Schoolhouse Rock. (See, television isn't always bad for you.)

Yes, I still use words for my storytelling but my brain seeks out stories everywhere: in the face of the elderly woman in the grocery store line, the found poetry written by a friend, the types of “pins” on a friend’s Pinterest boards.

Where do you find stories?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Legalize Marjiuana? Maybe. But Ban Pinterest Stat.

There are all sorts of addictions:  alcohol, drugs, shopping, food, work. But social media addiction may be our next national crisis.
You know you’re addicted when you can’t do without something… but also when that “something” crowds out more important parts of your life. In my case, writing.
Before Pinterest, there were a few web sites I checked each morning while I had my first cup of coffee: Facebook, web mail, the local paper,  Each of those entailed a quick scan and I moved on. Not with Pinterest.
I don’t want to calculate the hours I’ve spent searching Food and Drinks and DYI crafts. I don’t have a cake decorating biz anymore, yet I scan cake designs obsessively. And how many recipes using Nutella or Oreos should one person try?
Even now, as I should be sitting down to revise my novel or finish up that short story, I am writing ABOUT Pinterest.
I don’t know if I can go cold turkey but I know I should try. Think of all the fall and Christmas crafts I could be tempted to create — or heaven forbid, give as gifts this year.
Do you Pin? More importantly, do you need a support group for your Pinterest habit?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Take That, Writer's Block!

It’s Insight Friday.

A month ago, a lightning strike fried the circuitry in my double oven. It died and could not be resuscitated. We found a great deal on a replacement but it would be a number of weeks before it would arrive.
Suddenly, I *had* to bake. No matter that I rarely used the oven during summer because of the heat in the house. I was adrift. I’d find new cookie recipes that couldn’t be tried. I’d stare at the browning bananas, knowing they couldn’t be transformed into banana bread. I wailed that I couldn’t bake a frozen pizza (and I don’t even eat frozen pizzas).

Here’s the obvious insight (drumroll please): I didn’t appreciate the oven until it was gone.

I’m going to make the comparison to my writing days – Mondays and Fridays.  I’ve been wasting my writing days on chores, the gym, other projects, my day job, etc. I maintain that I’m *stuck* and can’t get past this block.

But if you were to take away my Monday and Friday writing days, I bet I’d suddenly miss them. I’d wail that I didn’t have enough time to write and I’d stomp around bemoaning how few hours there are in the day for my craft.

Because there is little danger of a lightning strike taking away my Monday and Friday writing days, I’m going to pull up my big-girl panties and get over this BS writer’s block. It’s a Friday and I’m going to write.  

Is there anything you took for granted that was then taken away from you?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Resisting a Timetable for Our Lives

Received an amusing (and important) email early this morning.

Subject line: Blog
Message in the email:  Um... Write one.

My dear writer friend, Micki, was gently reminding me that I’ve been lax in writing blog posts for some time. My first thought was to give you all the excuses WHY I’ve been lax (as I did in my last post about not writing). Instead, I’d like to tell you about a book I just read.

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock. Finished it in a day. One of the grittiest, most violent books I’ve ever read, but one of the most beautifully written. Pollock’s spare writing made me pay attention so that I didn’t miss one single word. The characters – the ones you hated and the ones you loved – were masterfully created with nuance and depth. I was literally mesmerized.

Pollock debuted as a novelist at age 57 after working 32 years at an Ohio paper will.

When I first learned that detail, I thought how incredible to realize a dream after so long…that he probably carried parts of that story in his soul for all those years. But maybe the story couldn’t be written earlier.

Maybe we all carry within ourselves aspirations that have to glimmer and fade and then resurface over and over until we’re ready to give them physical form.

I’d like to ask Pollock how he knew he was ready. But I’m guessing there wouldn’t be a clear-cut answer that would give others (me?) insight into the timing of their (my) own personal creative journeys.

If anything, Pollock’s story makes me feel less anxious about the process of writing and creating -- and especially about my previous notions of a publishing timetable. I trust that I’ll have the answer one day. And that day doesn’t have to be today or even tomorrow.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Reading, Writing and Thanking

I’m grateful today!
The first thank-you goes to Betty McMahon. I don’t know Betty McMahon but she found my blog. And commented on an old post. And said she liked my blog and added it to her blogroll.
But I’m thanking her not just for reading, but for giving me the push I needed to write a new blog post. It’s been MORE THAN THREE WEEKS.

Granted, I was on business travel for a good portion of that time, but the rest of the time I was sulking around, complaining about how many extra hours I’ve been putting in at my day job and not working on my novel. I conveniently ignore the hours I spent watching bad television or reading the Fifty Shades of Stupid trilogy in that time period. Betty reminds me that writing (often) is important – and that kind strangers out there may even stumble upon my blog and enjoy it!
Thanks also go out to my nephew, Hunter Knox, who happens to be living with me this summer until the apartment he’s renting becomes available. Few people I know read as much as Hunter does. My guest room is stacked with books (only a fraction of those he owns). He also works at Maria’s, our local independent bookstore, and has access to ARCs (advanced reading copies) of books.

The other morning, he rushed in with an ARC of short stories by George Saunders. Hunter said I “had” to read a short piece – only one page – called Sticks. So, I did. And I will never be the same. First, the writing is absolutely brilliant – an economy of words that knocks the wind out of the reader. Second, it made me jealous. Saunders can craft a story like nobody’s business. But it's a good kind of jealous – the kind that makes me want to write more, to improve my craft so that one day my readers are blown away by the words I string together.
For those interested,  here’s link to the short story. The few minutes you invest in reading it will be worth it.

So cool that a stranger and a relative both inspired me to write this week.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Only Colin Firth Can Be Mr. Darcy

When I’m reading a book, I get a very distinct picture of the characters in my mind. Sometimes a certain actor or actress will seem like the perfect fit. Often, the images are just a blend of traits (hair, build, voice, etc.)

When a book is translated to the big screen, I’m often worried that the actors won’t do justice to the roles. I’ve been pleasantly surprised (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hunger Games, Pride and Prejudice [BBC version] with Colin Firth). Other times, I think the casting director was on drugs (One for the Money).
I’m trying something different with the book I’m currently writing; a technique an author recommended. I’ve selected photos of actors who resemble my book’s characters (or how I see them in my mind’s eye). I keep these photos next to my computer so that I can visualize Arlie and her best friend, Mo; Arlie's love interest, Cody; and Arlie's Uncle Frank.

This book is YA contemporary. Working title: Sensing You. More details later as the story progresses. For now, I’ll leave you with these pics of my main characters.

  • Arlie (actress Hanna Mangan Lawrence)
  • Mo/Maureen (actress Chloe Moritz)
  • Cody (actor Cord Overstreet)
  • Frank (a cross between actor Zac Galifianakis and a family friend, Frank Baxter)

Have you been pleasantly surprised or horrified by a book to film translation? Do share!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Writer's Voice Contest Edition! (Entry #184)

Hi readers!
I'm entering a contest that asks me to post my query letter and first 250 words of my young adult novel, HANNAH'S HALF. The contest is based on the premise of the TV show, "The Voice." Four fabulous YA authors will pick their teams, "coach" them (help make the entries all sparkly) and then pitch to agents. What an amazing community of writers! 200 writers made the cut -- best of luck to everyone!


18-year-old Hannah Spencer would give anything for a dead-free day. For most of her life, she’s ignored the Visitors who appear in her bedroom each morning. After all, they’re dead, they don’t speak and they rarely stay more than a few minutes. 

Her communications with the deceased are pretty one-sided until Adam, a recent casualty in a car accident, appears and demands her help to move on to the afterlife. Troubled by her intense attraction to him, Hannah uncovers the truth about their connection: Adam is her  twin flame — the other half of her soul— and the two have spent a number of lifetimes together, each one ending in Hannah’s untimely death.

Unable to ignore their bond, Hannah and Adam rekindle their ages-old romance. However, when she links this mysterious ghost to the disappearance of his sister and the terrifying recurring dreams she’s been having, she must decide if helping him is worth risking her life … again.

Hannah's Half is a young adult paranormal mystery, complete at 62,000 words. I hope you find the premise intriguing enough to request a partial or full manuscript.


“You got a name, kid?”
The boy sitting on my bedroom floor couldn’t have been more than four or five years old. The cowlick in the back of his blond hair needed taming. As he sat cross-legged, holding a half-inflated red balloon, I noticed that the bottoms of his bare feet were dirty.

I rarely asked questions anymore because the Visitors never speak. I mean never. I’ve been seeing dead people for as long as I can remember and it’s always the same routine. Stare with haunted eyes, linger in the room, disappear.

“The silent treatment again. How original.” I sighed and pushed back my comforter. I’d gotten over being shy in front of the dead a long time ago. If they were going to invade my space, then they’d have to deal with seeing me in my panties.

As I rummaged through my dresser to find a pair of jeans, the sweet, burned smell of kettle corn filled my nose and carnival music played in my head. In strobe-like flashes, I saw the little boy walking hand in hand with a girl about his height. She handed him a cardboard cone wrapped with mounds of pink cotton candy. 

I shook my throbbing head as if that could make the images disappear. Unless the Visitors suddenly decided to tell me why my room was a ghost magnet, I vowed to ignore them.

God, I’d give just about anything to have a dead-free day.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sing Your Song (Even If No One is Listening)

Yikes! Where did April go? And how did I forget I had a blog?

Oh yeah…
  • I finished revising my third novel and began pitching it to literary agents. (Three have already asked to read it!)
  • I developed and presented a writing workshop for Goodwill senior-level staff who are in a development program to become Goodwill CEOs one day. This was some of the most fulfilling work I’ve done in my almost eight years working for Goodwill’s national office.
Because I don’t have time to develop anything original for my own blog, I’m going to direct you to a mind-blowing, thought-provoking pieceby Seth Godin. He advises us not to expect applause for the work we do.

An excerpt: If your work is filled with the hope and longing for applause, it's no longer your work – the  dependence on approval has corrupted it, turned it into a process where you are striving for ever more approval.

The one line that still resonates is: To play a beautiful song for two people or a thousand is the same song, and the amount of thanks you receive isn't part of that song.

Thanks to all of you who sing your songs day in and day out, who put yourselves out there in the world without expecting anything in return. You rock.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Throat Chakra: Strangle with Care

Friendships between women are exhilarating, transformational, messy, necessary, life-giving and sometimes devastating. This past week, I made the decision to leave a friendship. Over the years, I felt less and less authentic. My emotional and physical health began to suffer – but I put myself second so I wouldn’t hurt her. Well, I did hurt her. But I’d hurt myself much more.

In dealing with my decision, I found a very interesting passage online about the throat chakra:

The throat chakra is the fifth chakra in the body’s energy system, and its purpose is to act as the voice that is able to speak your authentic truth. This chakra provides clarity between what is right and wrong for you. It helps to form the authentic truth in your belief system, and it enables you to be assertive in expressing that truth to others.

My first reaction to this passage was “Oh no! Someone’s had their hands wrapped around my throat chakra because I haven’t been able to speak my truth!”

Those hands were my own. Thank goodness, I loosened my grip before passing out.

In comforting me, my sister left me with this wonderful and fitting imagery. A garden choked over with weeds takes hard (sometimes painful) work to clear. But only by doing that hard work and preparing the soil will you know what new growth can occur.

I’m glad it’s finally spring. What kind of emotional and physical clearing are you doing this time of year?

Monday, March 12, 2012

I'm Not Really an Extrovert, I Just Play One on TV

I’ve taken several personality/work styles tests over the past 20 years, including the well-known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Most recently, my employer had us take a test from Emergenetics. My results held no surprises for me:
  • Low on the social and expressive scales (I prefer one-on-one time to big parties; I prefer to work in solitude)
  • High on the structural and analytical (I meet and beat deadlines, I like lists and rules and order)
Several co-workers said my scores had to be wrong. (“You’re such an extrovert! You’re so creative!”) I never think these types of tests are wrong, or good/bad. I think they say more about our comfort level than about how we act and interact in our work and personal lives.
It’s the same with right brain/left brain theory. It’s no surprise that I “test out” as more left brain (more logical, critical thinker; retains information through words and symbols).
I think we possess characteristics from all personality and work types. We must choose when, where and with whom we show these traits. My hope is that we don’t pigeon-hole or stereotype anyone based on these tests. I believe we benefit immensely when we stretch ourselves and our comfort levels, and that it can make us better at what we do for a living and in our leisure time.
For example:
  • Mary is an accountant by day but is learning to play bass guitar at night.
  • Fred is a graphic designer who enjoys skateboarding.
  • Christina is a cyclist who teaches yoga.
I’m a writer/editor by profession but I love to decorate cakes and prepare gourmet meals. I feel I use a completely different part of my brain when designing beautiful cakes or following new recipes than when I write fiction. I think writing makes me a better cake designer and chef; and that my culinary skills help me be a better writer.
Do you stretch beyond your personality and work “types”? How does that work out for you?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Sussie a Day...

My head is swimming from all the big ideas I picked up from speakers during my company’s annual meeting in mid-February. Themes from the talks are sure to come up in future blog posts but today I’m going to write about humor. (Mostly because I am in a humorless mood today!)

I’m not talking about one’s ability to tell a good joke, or put on a lampshade and become the life of the party. I’m talking about one’s openness to joy, laughter and lightheartedness even when the world seems to be crumbling down around you.

Peter McLaughlin, a management consultant for Fortune 500 companies, listed humor as one of four requirements of a successful executive or organization (the other three points being energy, positive emotions and happiness). I’d venture to say all four are interconnected.

So, despite heavy workloads and stressful work environments, McLaughlin stated that employers who put a high priority on humor and laughter had more effective and productive employees.

Let me share two examples: one work-related and one personal.

When I was in my early 30s, I ran the publishing division of a large nonprofit in Washington, DC. My boss would regularly bring staff to tears with her shouting, changing moods and unrealistic expectations. The three managers who worked for her (myself included) had to work hard not to let her negativity trickle down to our own staffs. On an especially tough day, I bought each of the women who worked for me a roll of Lifesavers candies. The levity it created buoyed us (sorry for the pun) the rest of the week.

My sister, Tessa, has been one of my greatest teachers when it comes to finding joy on a daily basis. She is known for her “sussies” or surprises — little gifts she gives to people to make them smile. She once told me she tucks a sussie into each room of her home. Whenever Tessa catches a glimpse of one, it reminds her to smile. It may be a funny photo next to her computer, or a goofy looking stuffed animal on a bookshelf. The photo to the right is a sussie that Tessa gave me. This silly looking fairy hangs above the toilet in my guest bathroom — and has brought smiles to many visitors.

Do you look for joy on a daily basis? What shape does it take? Do you think humor is an important part of your workplace?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Busy Bee, Just Be

I’m in that weird space between books – meaning I’ve finished writing one and don’t feel like starting another just yet. The manuscript is now out with a few beta readers and then the revision process will begin.

I think this ebb and flow of energy and creativity is something we all experience. We put in time and effort toward a goal – all hands on deck, so to speak – and it’s natural to feel low energy when the goal is accomplished.

It’s also natural to feel like we’re being lazy if we don’t jump right back in and DO something.

Alas, it’s the human BEING versus human DOING dilemma. The state of just being can feel unnatural because we’ve been wired (taught?) to go-go-go from morning to night. Busy, busy, busy bees, buzz, buzz, buzzing around.

So…Mondays are my dedicated ‘writing day.’ I didn’t write today – at least not fiction. I slept in, had coffee, watched the snow, baked Valentines cookies, had tea with a friend and read a book. Nothing I did had anything to do with productivity or accomplishment! Hurrah!

I even managed to ignore my work emails for most of the day.

My wish for each of you this week is to take a break from doing – at least for an hour – and just be in the moment. If we practice, maybe it will start to feel natural.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Little Bites of Self-Care Easy to Swallow

We writers – and I suspect all creative types – tend to get down on ourselves a lot. A couple (or a dozen) rejections arrive in the email box and it’s “I’m crap! How did I think I could write and sell a novel? Are my thighs getting bigger?”
Back in December I blogged about showing ourselves some tenderness. And this blog has a similar theme: self-care. And more precisely, internal self-care.

A good friend gave me a book titled The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present In the Life You’ve Got.
After I read a few pages, I immediately bought a copy for my sister and my brother. The messages were that powerful (dare I say life-changing). Each day’s “meditation” is short, sweet and filled with wisdom we already have but sometimes forget or ignore.

At about the same time, I found a great web site called Tiny Buddha: Simple Wisdom for Complex Lives. The tidbits of inspiration come from people like you and me. The site is divided into sections like happiness and fun; meaning and passion; change and challenges; mindfulness and peace; letting go, etc. The success of the site had led to a book of the same title. And it’s fantastic.

My spiritual journey of self-care has been a long one – filled with curbs and potholes mostly of my own making.

That's why I’m so thankful for the lessons these books impart. Won’t you join me for a little bite? I swear you’ll want to savor it over and over again.
What constitutes self-care for YOU? And how do you remember to take care of yourself?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Where Everybody Knows Your Name (and Your Business)

I’ve been in Texas all week visiting my sister and her family. She lives in Glen Rose, a town of 2,100 people. It’s the kind of town where the pharmacist knows my sister by name; the kind of town that turns out in full force for the opening of the new school gymnasium; the kind of town where gift shop owners on the square encourage shoppers to visit their competition.

Glen Rose is double the population of the town where I grew up; a town I dreamt of escaping my whole childhood. And boy, did I. I went to a state university of 50,000 students. I’ve lived in cities with populations in the millions.

And yet, I ended up living in a small town myself. And although it’s 10 times larger than my sister’s community, it gives me the things I took for granted as a child and the things my sister experiences daily.

My pharmacist knows me by name – which is tough with a name like Mikulencak. I’m likely to see 10 or more people I know just by walking down main street. I have a main street! My office building’s landlord cut my rent in half just so I’d stay in her building.

I’m confident that even big city dwellers find this sense of community in little pockets of their bustling cities.

What about YOUR town (city) makes it home for you?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Try a Little Tenderness in 2012

My goal in 2011 was to blog once a week. You can see from the posts listed at the left that I did not achieve that goal. I didn’t even make it to two posts in December. On this bright, sunny New Year’s Day morning, I have vowed to let it go. No guilt. No regret.

Which brings me to the word of the year: compassion. Consider it my one resolution for 2012.

A dear friend used to remind me that we seem to have a limitless capacity for compassion – but for others. We rarely have this level of compassion for ouselves. When I speak of ‘compassion,’ I’m referring to its less-used definition: tenderness.

The world is a hard place to begin with, and we tend to make it harder by living with regret, guilt, judgment, self-doubt, anger. When we make a mistake or fail to live up to someone’s (our own?) expectations, we should try a little tenderness. (Hey, that’d make a great song. Oh, it’s already
one. First recorded in 1932 and re-recorded hundreds of times since then. Good job. We need the message to sink in.)

In its most simple form, compassion (tenderness) is the act of just letting it go. Acknowledge the pain or sadness or regret or failure and then say to yourself, “Self, you deserve a break. Let’s move on from this.”

Rarely do we make our deepest inner struggles and fears and doubts known to our friends and family. So, it’s not realistic to hope or assume someone will show us compassion when we need it most. We have to do that for ourselves.