Uncategorized, Writing Tips

Getting back to writing…

Sorry I have been gone for so long! Have taken a break from fiction writing for the past few months because I found myself obsessively revising my novel and older short stories. I became stuck in a kind of “judgment whirlpool” in which nothing I had written seemed good enough. I had about 15 versions of just about everything — the literary form of hoarding. Realized that I needed to STOP!

So, I did some painting — am still doing some drawing and painting for fun — and recently started a kind of freewriting-poetry-thing. Basically, I just write down whatever I’m thinking in poetic form, rather than worrying about whole sentences, grammar, etc… I don’t edit. And I don’t censor myself. If I feel like deleting these “poems” at any point, I give myself permission to do that, rather than numbering them and saving 50 different versions on my hard drive.

So far, it’s been fun to see what images pop up from my subconscious, sort of like writing down your dreams! Later, I analyze my poem to see if anything resonates. If not, that’s okay, no pressure. That’s the whole point of this break — to take the pressure off myself to write for a specific genre (mystery? YA? literary?) and to a specific audience (12 year olds? adults? women?). I was so busy focusing on getting published, whether independently or “traditionally,” and trying to “brand” myself and my writing that I lost track of what I wanted to say in the first place!

Have you ever felt like throwing in the towel and quitting writing? It’s a scary prospect, but at the same time kind of freeing. I realized that I don’t have to identify myself solely as a “writer.” I can just be someone who likes to write!

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Yes or No??

In honor of Scotland’s historical vote for independence today, here’s The Proclaimers! Whether the country votes “Yes” or “No,” taking positive action of any kind is a step in the right direction. My mother and I left Scotland more than 20 years ago because of the lack of jobs and the lack of livable wages. I don’t think things have changed hugely today; just look at all the Scots in America, Australia, and across the world who’ve had to leave in order to have successful careers. We didn’t leave because it was the easy way out — we had to leave behind family and friends, who we still miss dearly today. My mother and I came to the U.S. with two suitcases, leaving behind our mementos, culture, and everything familiar to us. We left our homeland because the choices were limited to none.

Let’s hope that from today onward, Scotland will push forward onto a brighter future!

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When not to listen…

For a few years, now, I’ve been thinking about what it means to take advice from “experts” in books (or in any medium for that matter). My husband was the one who first pointed out that whenever I read a self-help book, whether on how to train dogs or how to overcome shyness, I take it wholeheartedly as God’s honest truth! I’ve been aware of this tendency and have tried to keep an open mind whenever anyone gives me advice (for example, I need to start using wrinkle cream to “preserve” my looks!) or whenever I hear about a scientific study “proving” that dogs actually have emotions (gasp! Horror!).

In the past few months, however, I’ve really started considering who is considered an “expert” and how much damage could that person possibly do if he/she gave bad advice to lots of people. For example, a friend of mine from out of state asked about local museums. I told him about a great one in Greensboro, to which he replied that this other museum had been voted #1 on a travel website. “That one?” I was confused. The museum he’d mentioned was okay but kind of boring, and I told him so. “But it was voted number one!” he exclaimed. “But I’ve been there,” I said. “It’s just okay.” He ended up going to the boring museum, trusting the guidance of the website over that of an actual person who had been to the museum. No harm done. He liked it.

But that got me thinking about how much trust we sink into just about anyone who is published. A famous author wrote a few years ago about studies that show older children do better in their academic careers if they are a little older than their peers, and now a generation of parents are keeping their five-year-olds back, waiting until they turn six to start school. A famous actress (not a doctor or even biologist) says that vaccines are causing autism, based on a study done years ago that has been disproved. Now, scores of parents are refusing vaccines — I wonder what the long-term effects of that will be! And a National Book Award Winner writes about depression — he states at the beginning of the book that he’s not a doctor — with the air of an “expert,” citing facts and studies but obviously he can’t cover everything that’s ever been written about depression. After reading the book, I’m left feeling more hopeless and depressed than ever!

My point is just what my husband told me years ago — don’t believe everything you read. Don’t take it as “truth.” Read from lots of sources and talk to people, experts and everyday people who have experienced depression or dog training or who have a child with autism. Studies can show just about anything, depending upon who conducts it and who funds it, who interprets the data. Maybe all this is obvious to you, but I have to keep reminding myself — just because someone is famous or has a PhD or went to Harvard or has an English accent or has won the National Book Award doesn’t make him/her holder of the world’s TRUTH. And, maybe just as important, trust your gut. Don’t take it from me; go out and find out the truth for yourself!

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“It’s for a friend…”

So, I am still making my way through a pile of self-help books (not really!), while actively procrastinating the completion of the final edits to my YA novel, The Rain Catcher. The more I learn about myself, the more I start to wonder if I need to make yet more changes to the novel… But enough about that. What I really wanted to talk about was the dilemma many face when  purchasing books with “exposing” titles at brick-and-mortar stores.

Self help books often have embarrassing titles that spell out personal problems — think divorce, low libido, panic attacks, bankruptcy — and then you have to go up to the counter and hand those books to an actual person, who will glance down at the book and then know that YOU probably have that problem! It’s like buying condoms or pregnancy tests, which effectively tell the cashier, “Yes, I’m having sexual intercourse!” Or buying Milk of Magnesia — “Yes, I have constipation!!” Or romance novels with the heroine’s clothes half off on the cover — “Yes, I like to read risqué literature!”

Worse is considering where to put the book when you get home. You can’t leave Finding Your Perfect Alpha-Male or How to Be a Real Bitch on the coffee table for your 10-year-old nephew to see (or your mother). Placed on a bookshelf in a “public” room like the living room, there’s always the risk of your brother-in-law scoping out your copy of Explosive Diarrhea Explained, waving it in the air, and announcing in a really loud voice, “My grandmother has this, too!” My embarrassing books are discretely placed between similar-sized books so they’ll blend in. And I don’t clump them all together; I space them out, perhaps one per shelf. As soon as I’ve had enough of the books, I donate them to Good Will — the evidence is gone!


Perhaps self-help authors should think about this dilemma before picking out a title. Would it hurt sales to have something a little less explicit on the cover? I don’t know. Are you more likely to buy a book entitled, Kick that Cocaine Habit! or Dependency and You? Yes, I know… probably the first!


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Poetry unlocks the door…

To me, there are few things more inspiring that kids using words to tell their stories and help themselves break free — whether from social, mental, or physical boundaries. Even as an adult, writing for me (and many others) is about getting out all the stories and feelings that otherwise feel locked inside because we have a hard time saying the important things out loud. But on paper (or the screen), it feels safer.

Today, on NPR, I heard about a young man who won the Words Unlocked 2014 poetry contest for his poem “Meth.” Words Unlocked is a month-long program designed for kids who are being held in juvenile facilities; it provides their teachers resources to help these kids learn about poetry and ultimately enter the national contest. Here’s a link to the winning poems (these kids are really talented!). It’s a shame that so many of the poems are about addiction and death…

And if you are an educator, wherever and whoever you teach, you might want to use these same resources to help your students learn more about writing poetry. There’s a teacher’s guide, a 7-day unit, and a month-long unit. Give it a try!

A trailer from the amazing-looking documentary, Louder Than a Bomb! Gets me fired up about poetry!

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High school newspaper fights sexism, stigma against depression!

Hats off to The Communicator, the student-run online and print newspaper at Community High in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The staff are not afraid to print controversial articles about dress codes that discriminate against young women and recently penned an op-ed piece in The New York Times, detailing their fight to help end the stigma against depression. This talented group also write about local and global issues, more than just the prom (which was what we mainly covered in my school newspaper!), although they write about that, too! They also raise the money to print the newspaper by holding fundraisers.

I am so impressed with these students because I know how hard it can be just to get a student-run newspaper off the ground. I was on the newspaper staff (back in the 1990s!), and when our high school switched principals, he decided to cancel funding for the school newspaper. A dedicated teacher somehow managed to wrangle a deal in which she could still teach the class (an elective), and we would raise the money ourselves for the newspaper. So, we did. We asked local businesses to buy ads in our paper, and we sold our issues for 50 cents each (if memory serves). We managed to pull together a monthly paper — of course, only print back then! — and I have always been proud to have been part of that effort.

Another reason I think The Communicator and the students at Community High deserve praise is because of their efforts to end the stigma against depression and other “controversial” forms of mental illness. As an adult with chronic depression, I know how hard it is to even tell a family member that I have the illness. As soon as I say, “I was diagnosed with depression back in 2007,” an ambiguous look comes over most people’s faces, a mixture of surprise, sadness, and (am I imagining this?) disbelief. Regardless of what they are thinking, it doesn’t compare to the thoughts racing through MY head — “They think I’m weird, they think I’m being melodramatic, I just want to take pills and make everything okay, I’m looking for an easy answer, I’m going to freak out and throw myself under a bus…” The fact that I feel ashamed and secretive about my depression, that I have these assumptions at all, shows me just how ingrained the stigma is against it — never mind bipolar disorder or, heaven-forbid, an eating disorder!

So, I know how much courage it takes to admit you have a mental illness — AND to be willing to do it when you’re in high school and to your peers AND strangers who would undoubtedly have read the issue, that takes sheer guts! My hat is off to all the students at Community High who are willing to put themselves on the line and take a stand!

P.S. This is a great website to help you find a counselor in your area if you just need someone neutral to talk to about how you’re feeling.

 

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The Rain Catcher

YA novel, The Rain Catcher

Our first publication, The Rain Catcher, will be released summer 2014. This young adult novel follows Katy as she spends the summer in Scotland with her estranged mother, Liz, and living-on-the-edge Aunt Claire. The three end up on a bizarre road trip through the Highlands, whizzing past Loch Ness and Inverness, supposedly sightseeing, but Katy begins to wonder if her mom and aunt are actually running from something — or someone!

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Welcome to Southern Bend Books!

This is the home of what will soon be a new micro press, based in North Carolina. Our focus will be books that help readers understand life, to put it very broadly! We will include educational books and fiction for all ages.

“Southern Bend” represents the region of South because that is where we are based, but we want to represent writers and ideas from all over the world! Please stay tuned as we continue to morph into something great!