Thursday, April 15, 2021

Amherst Writers & Artists—Finding Your Voice


Amherst Writers & Artists

At my first writing conference I heard well-established writers enthusing about the Amherst Writers & Artists method of writing. It intrigued me because they said that the secret to getting your best story onto the page was to dig deep and write fearlessly. Not worrying about what teachers or professors or other writers might think appealed to me but I had a few unpublished books under my belt and thought I'd figured out how to write. What I wanted to know was how to get someone to publish my book. 

Bet many writers go to conferences like I did, in a hurry to be published and fairly confident that the writing itself isn't an issue.

What I've learned over the ensuing years though is that getting a book published isn't the problem as much as writing the best stories I can. What I've learned is that while many of us may have this big fantasy of what a published book will mean, the fantasy isn't the reality. What I've learned is that if you really love to write your stories and focus on doing it to the best of your ability, absolutely wonderful things can follow.

There's something brilliant and empowering about finding your voice and using it.

Finding your Voice

A few years after I had my first books published I went to an Amherst Writers & Artists workshop on an island in Greece.

I told the facilitator of the workshop that I was currently working on another book and that I'd probably not attend all the daily classes. I wanted to hole up on my balcony alone and write. She responded encouragingly, asking only that I attend the first class to see how it worked. So I did. 

After that first class I went to every single class during the retreat, plus the extra ones they offered in the evenings. I was hooked. Not only that, but every book I wrote after I began to practice the Amherst Writers & Artists method became clearer and better. It was as if I'd once begun to sing with the hint of a frog in my throat, and someone encouraged me to stand taller, to clear my throat, take a deep breath and focus. Then when I sang, they sat in the first row and smiled, gave me a thumbs up, and encouraged me so that I began to sing in my true voice with real confidence.

Amherst Writers & Artists Method

This writing method has intrigued and given me so much back that for years now I've wanted to take their training class and learn whatever magic these workshop leaders impart. I applied for acceptance in their training program recently and was accepted. During the first day of training someone said it's somewhat difficult to explain to someone who hasn't taken an AWA class what it is without sounding like you're in a cult. That cracked me up. I've felt the same when I try to curb my enthusiasm and recommend the classes to other writers.

In fact, I think at least one other writer has asked if I prefer to work only with writers who've trained in the method. 

After completing the training and becoming certified I can answer that question. I prefer to work with supportive people. Amherst Writers & Artists helps writers to discover and share their stories in a safe and supportive environment. Everyone in the group is welcome and everyone is considered a writer of equal standing (published or not). There's no condemnation or criticism. It's not therapy, but it's therapeutic. If you share something close to the bone with someone and they rip it apart, it teaches you to hold back. 

If you share something close to the bone that you're writing and other writers tell you what works in the piece—it empowers your writing voice.

Writing to Prompts

How does this empowering writing method work? It seems incredibly simple but so do many of the moves you see in the Olympics. The facilitators of the workshops guide the writers through a series of writing prompts. Participants write for a specified amount of time, then read out loud in turn. That's the scary part for most writers. Feedback. If it sends you into a panic, or you don't want to share, you always have the option to pass. This is when the introverts in the group breathe a collective sigh of relief. (I know I did.)

It's fine if you don't want to read. Yet, if you do choose to share, or when you're ready to share and read (even if your voice shakes), the reward is great. The other writers in your group will listen closely and they'll tell you what works for them about the piece. They won't infringe on or criticize your work, they won't red line or comment on grammar, it's a first draft for pity's sake! They'll simply tell you what stood out, what they heard, and what works for them. That feedback is invaluable.

"So much depends upon..." is one of my favorite writing prompts. I think I've written to it in every class I've ever taken/taught. Not two answers have ever been the same. Another thing I've loved about this method is the privilege of listening to so much brilliant writing. I invite you to write to the prompt, for about four minutes. If you do, and want to share, leave it in the comments below or email it to me and I'll tell you what works for me. Below, I share what I wrote to it in my last class.

So much depends upon...time.

    How much do you get? A cup? Half a cup?

    How will you spend it? On yourself? On your people? Work? Kids? Family?

Science thrills me.

    I have big books about time.

    That Stephen Hawkings one.

    Or Julian Barbour who doesn't believe in time.

    He says everything happened at the same time.

    The Big Bang—the formation of the universes—humanity here on earth.

    Just whoosh here—then everything gone.

    No time. Could our concept of time simply be how our minds are capable of perceiving existence?

    Like dogs and color?

It doesn't really matter I figure.

Time. Perception. It's brief.

    It's a half a cup of whoosh.

    I'll take it.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Nutrition and the Digestive System, eCornell Class—Trying to Figure Out Why Gluten is The Enemy


Someone asked me recently for tips on going Gluten-Free. In some ways it's easy for me. I've not once cheated and eaten gluten on purpose. No matter how tempting the cupcake or bread might be to someone, I see it as poison. I find flaming pain to be quite inspirational. 

The reason I took eCornell's class on Nutrition and the Digestive System  is because I wondered how I could have such trouble with gluten when I'm not Celiac. It's an interesting class. We covered the following:

  • Sympathetic/Parasympathetic Systems
  • The Autonomic Nervous System
  • The Physiology of the ANS
  • Digestion and the Mouth
  • Saliva Production
  • How to Evaluate Studies
  • Nutrition and the Digestive System
  • Digestion and the Stomach
  • Digestion and the Small Intestine

There's a lot to the class but Gluten and Celiac are covered along with Proteins, Gastric Emptying, Dietary Fiber, and the Geometry of the Small Intestine/and Structure. Inside the small intestine are structures called Villi that absorb nutrients. If you are Celiac, gluten causes intestinal collapse and your villi retracts (for lack of a better word). 

It's a fascinating class and I'd like to eventually take all the classes in this series. There was no real answer to why gluten causes me to develop Interstitial Cystitis. I had to assume gluten causes inflammation for me everywhere and maybe it's worse in certain systems. I have Sjogren's Syndrome which is why I'd decided to try giving up gluten in the first place. It took me some time to figure out what all had gluten in it, but within a week of figuring that out and quitting it I never had another bladder spasm. 

My Urologist was rather amazed and I may have been among the first to graduate from ever having to see her again. 

The difficulty in eating gluten-free is real. Gluten is hidden in most everything. Once I got "glutened" by chewing gum. Another time by mints. Cough drops. Dried fruit. Salad Dressing. Chocolate. Those were times when a gluten containing ingredient was hidden or overlooked. Apparently dried fruit can sometimes involve flour in processing. Malt and barley derivatives hide in ingredient lists and they're gluten. So quitting gluten is more of a process as you learn to avoid it and difficult to do perfectly from day one, or to do for only a few days to see if it makes you feel better. 

One thing I have learned even before this class, there's no bread or cupcake worth flaming pain. One thing I learned after this class? I'm not going to solve "gluten-sensitivity" as so many medical professionals call it (as though it'll cause a wee tummy ache or possibly a few hives), but I can avoid it and that really works beautifully for me. 

Monday, March 8, 2021

Me and Microsoft Excel—The Fast Easy Way to Keep Track of Writing Finances


Using Excel

Udemy dot com offers a Microsoft Excel class for Beginners to Advanced. It has over 200,000 positive reviews. For years I've tried to avoid Excel simply because I never took the time to learn how to use it properly. The worst part is that I was business manager for an engineering company and used it in my job but when I was finally able to make writing my full-time job, I quit using Excel just because I could. I decided it'd be easier to keep track of everything in handwritten ledgers. It wasn't easier.

After years of accumulating piles of good old-fashioned paperwork, I had to admit to myself that everything would actually be simpler if I used Excel again. Step one, I decided, was to LEARN how to use it properly so I didn't dread it. That's how I found the Udemy class. 

The class I'm recommending is by Kyle Pew, Office Newb. Every single lesson is basic (my speed) and thorough. I keep a laptop open beside my computer through each lesson, so I can practice without split screens. 

Recently I mentioned this Excel class to a group of writers. There was a collective groan, EXCEL, NO! It was the old, "Don't make us do math" mentality. My mentality. Yet the fact is, keeping track of your finances via Excel is the easy way. Sorry to be a realist. You know I abhor reality. I have the soul of a fiction writer. Yet what I've learned is that it's an undeniable fact that the best way to deal with keeping track of writing expenses is succinctly. That way you get it over with as quickly as possible. 

Excel can help you with that.

When you write, or simply live, you have to keep track of income and expenses. You have to do the math. It's easier on everyone if you keep good track of expenses and income and know the bottom line in your writing life and in the real world. You'll see in plain old black and white and red what works and what doesn't. It helps you make smart decisions, like what to spend your time and energy on and what is a waste of resources. That's actually important in both worlds—Fiction and Non-Fiction. 

Monday, February 1, 2021

Arcadia's Images of America—your hometown in a book


My BFF gives the best gifts. Over the years she often includes something from my hometown. I moved away long ago and the memories are priceless. When the kids were little they knew that the Willoughby throw my BFF gave me was off-limits. No wrapping the dog in it, no wrapping a kid in it and eating chocolate ice-cream. It was special to me. It was woven with pictures of the local library, schools, and remembered 19th Century homes. I didn't think anything could top that gift until this year when my bestie sent me a little book about my hometown. 

Images of America, Willoughby

It's full of pictures from the founding of the town and through the decades. It even includes old stories and legends I remember obsessing over as a child growing up there. There's a picture of my elementary school that was torn down. I loved seeing the old trolleys I'd never known once existed, and all my favorite rivers, parks, bridges, and haunts. 

It's been ages since I lived in Willoughby, and I've lived in many towns since then. It surprised me to find most of them represented with their very own books in Images of America available through Arcadia Publishing and Barnes and Noble. There's nothing better to splurge on than books in my opinion, and I bought one from almost every town I've lived in. Some are more in-depth and interesting than others. All of them are worth the approximate twenty dollar cost. 

Images of America, Rockwall

Likely I'll never stop missing Texas. Reading through this book I once more got caught up in the great mystery about the Lone Star State's smallest county. There are portions of a prehistoric rock wall that is a matter of much debate—was it man made or is it a natural geological formation? There's good authority for both arguments and when I lived near that part of the wall I might have joined in the digging but for the formidable legion of fire ants guarding it. That's the only thing I don't miss about Texas, fire ants.

Images of America, Shrewsbury

Shrewsbury is a picturesque New England town, closer to Worcester than Boston. I used it in my book Bitch Witch. That entire story landed in my brain during a late night run to Target under a blue moon. The house I used to live in was a perfect setting for the formidable Archer women. That story wrote itself and I have Shrewsbury to thank for it. Though I didn't live there as long as other places in Massachusetts, it stayed with me. I got the Images of America books for most of my Massachusetts towns, including one for where I used to work. Surprisingly some companies are included in this series. 

There's More

To date I've collected ten of the Images of America books, not including the ones I've gifted. One thing I've learned from my bestie is to share good ideas. Browsing the Arcadia publishing website I realize that even some mountains have their own books. It makes sense, everyplace has a story. I've just added a couple more books to my wish list. 

If you want to know more about your favorite American towns and places, check them out. Let me know what you think. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Building your Screenplay—Cambridge University edX—MOOC Classes

This week I completed the online screenwriting class Building your Screenplay offered by Cambridge University. It's part of their Micromasters program in Writing Performance & Entertainment Industries. I took it online without enrolling in the masters program. From what I learned in one of our live lessons, I think you'd have to attend the university in person to finish the offered micromasters, and complete an English exam that could silence some of the diverse and varied online voices.

It's a four week class. It took me four or five hours a week to complete that week's lessons, that's half the recommended time but I write daily and have for years. I've also already completed one version of the screenplay I'm working on so when it came to theme, character, and story, I could summon my take on the assignments instantly. 

Compared to the other MOOC classes I've taken, I found this one easier and spent less time on it. That said, I found it a very valuable class and it gave me a lot to consider in regards to my screenplay. Part One with award-winning film-director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese and his take on image taking precedence in screenwriting was especially provocative. 

My favorite part of the class was our live ZOOM meeting. There's just nothing like getting together with a group of other writers for inspiration, networking, and simple camaraderie even if it's online. We split into breakout rooms for an assignment. It was both brilliant and surreal to chat writing with screenwriters from Peru, Spain, and Montana. Our discussion topic somehow morphed into movie scores, but I promise it was time well spent and I wouldn't have missed it.

During these online classes, I take notes while I listen to lectures, and I save my assignments to refer back to. I will be referring back to these notes as I continue working on my screenplay. This class is available for free or with edX's verified track. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

Me Writing a Screenplay and Maybe Next Year I'll Become an Astronaut or a Doctor


You know that scene in Legally Blonde where the professor says, Do you think she woke up one morning and said, I think I'll go to Law School today? Well that reminds me of me deciding, Oh, hey, I think I'll write a screenplay of the Gummy book. That's what I call Nobody Told Me Love in the Time of Dementia, my memoir about me, my mother-in-law, and dementia. 

After that decision my reality became a tsunami of new information to learn, software to choose/purchase/master, skills to miraculously acquire, and incredible friends who pointed me toward incredible opportunities that I don't begin to deserve. 

Why I thought this was doable is downright foolish. That's exactly the attitude that got me writing books to begin with. One day I really did wake up and decide that after decades of writing stories in secret, I was going to finish an entire novel and figure out how to get it published. 

That's all well and good. Finishing the book is the famously difficult part. It is to be applauded. Yet getting it published was a whole new difficulty. Publishing is a business, much to the colossal disappointment of countless writers like myself, and you actually have to learn it and do the work. Yes, after all the effort of writing the book, then you have to learn about the publishing business.

You might think that would have given me a clue about writing a screenplay

Why I thought that adapting a memoir to a screenplay would be basically a formatting issue is a tribute to my clueless optimism. (My muse is whispering, dumb dumb dumb.) I'm still trying to figure out the screenwriting software. Sure, I wrote one screenplay start to finish already, but no, I still haven't really figured out the software. 

I'm a visual learner. I had the story in my head. I had the movie in my head. I got copies of other screenplays and I tried to duplicate the formatting. Sorta, kinda.

Hey, I took a Masterclass and read books about it!

It's still clueless and precisely how I began the novel writing process so long ago. (Wait, how do you format dialog? *opens a book to see*) Ignorance really is bliss. That's why I enjoy writing first drafts so much, before you have to do it all again properly. Anything is possible when you first begin writing and before you start the slow climb to publication/reality. Over time I've developed a method. This is my secret: I turn shitty first drafts into novels with the tenacity of one of those whales attacking boats off the coast of Spain. BAM. BAM. This is MY boat. BAM. BAM. Do as I demand. BAM. BAM. Surrender, mortal!

My technique is to write a thing and then continuously rewrite it as I storm the seas until I find a way to make it a real book. I suppose that'll work for screenplays too. 

Or not.

The book Nobody Told Me Love in the Time of Dementia is a book I rewrote eighteen times. Keep in mind it's a true story. You might think that would have given me an edge and cut down on all the rewriting. It didn't. Who knows how many times I'll rewrite the screenplay? I keep working and rewriting until I find my flow. Tenacity is my superpower. 

Maybe by the time I'm finished rewriting the Nobody Told Me screenplay, I'll have figured out the

screenwriting software. (It worked for Microsoft Word.) More importantly, as I attempt this new technique, I'm really building some unused writing muscles, plus I'm networking and learning as I go. This month I began another screenwriting class. MOOC classes are my favorite way to learn new skills. 

If publishing is big business, movies/television/plays are a freaking Goliath/Amazonian/Giant! 

Tenacity looks a lot like those whales. It might not make sense to onlookers, but my muse and I know exactly what we're doing. (Banging our heads against the bottom of a boat, right? Surrender, mortal!)

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer—The story of Christopher Johnson McCandless


There's a 2007 movie about this story. Like in most every case of book versus movie, the book is more in-depth and factual. After a long trek through Alaska, a friend sent me a copy of the book telling me to read it to know the true story. 

Wilderness Adventure

While I'd found the movie beautiful (Alaska) and inspiring, I found the book sobering for many reasons. First, a hush of reverence hit me. The book contains quotes by Thoreau, Muir, and lesser known naturalists. What sobered me was the unimaginable courage of anyone who can walk into the wilderness alone and with no backup. I've sampled enough motha nature to know I couldn't expect to walk out if I did that. 

The book contains stories besides McCandless's, stories about climbing icy peaks and dangerous wild wilderness adventures—some with better endings than others. What struck me was the draw of taking such risks for the reward of communing with a more ancient side of our nature. These stories happened before Instagram and are about adventures taken for quiet, personal reasons. Secondly, that motive is something I miss in stories coming out of the world today. The only glory found in these stories is internal and private. I admire that in a human being.

Personal Reasons

Any quest taken for purely personal reasons, without happening to have a camera crew on hand, impresses me. For that alone I appreciate Christopher (Alex Supertramp) McCandless's striving, optimism, and determination. I also appreciate the author, Jon Krakauer, and his effort to uncover this story including what happened to Chris McCandless in the end. 

It's not likely the truth would have ever been known if not for Krakauer's efforts. 

It's definitely worth a read. It's a very centering book. It made me think about what my inner hero needs and it's not Instagram. 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Hating Game A Novel by Sally Thorne—A Quick Read & Pure Escapism


This one is pure escapism

Often when I ask someone what they like to read and we talk classics, non-fiction, memoirs, biographies, and literature, I'll add but what is your go-to escapism reading? You know the kind of book you devour but don't necessarily remember to add to recommendations, something you picked up and couldn't put down? 

Because reading can be just for fun

For Christmas I received a delicious pile of books: Coffee-table books, inspirational, bestsellers, non-fiction, and books that are friend's favorites (including some translated into English from other languages). Books are my favorite gifts to receive. I feel like the luckiest person ever to have vetted and recommended piles of books waiting for me. It's great when I can literally cozy into my over-sized chair with them scattered beside me, piled on the floor, and a few in my lap and read one after another. 

Movies are great, but books are my first love. They contain MORE detail, deeper story!

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne was a gift and came with the instructions to take a day and read it obsessively. It's pure escapism and just fun. It's about two co-workers who absolutely despise each other. They share an office. It's told from the point of view of Lucy Hutton. The publishing house she works for merged with another publishing house and now she has to compete with Joshua Templeman, a priggish and perfect man who judges her every move and never smiles.

Lucie initiates various games against Joshua, keeping track of his predictable behavior and trying to one-up him as he effortlessly wins every battle she wages. Things get heated when they compete for an upcoming promotion they both want and they keep Human Resources busy with their hijinks. I laughed out loud and read until the wee hours of the morning, unable to put the book down and go to bed. 

It's a fast-paced story and you won't want to put it down either!

In fact I planned to reread it to deconstruct Thorne's writing style. I was that impressed with her technique. Maybe I will get to that in time—after I've read all the other vetted and gifted gems vying for my attention. Have I mentioned how much I love to read? It's one of my favorite things, especially when a book keeps me laughing out loud.

Monday, December 28, 2020

The Science of Happiness—Berkeley edX—online learning during a pandemic


In order to focus on things besides the latest pandemic news and to continue to learn and grow as a person, I decided to take edX's The Science of Happiness by BerkeleyX . It teaches positive psychology and science-based principles for a happy and meaningful life. 

Heads up, The Science of Happiness isn't about becoming ridiculously happy all the time or not feeling what you really feel. It's about living your best meaningful life. It's smart and insightful and like any science-based class it's backed up with research and facts. 

It's a big class. That means it takes a chunk of time. The overview says about five hours a week for eleven weeks. I gave myself only five weeks to do it because I have deadlines approaching and had to. A more leisurely pace would have been easier, but I also do better on quizzes and tests if the course material is still fresh in my vestibular migraine head. 

Free or Verified

Verified Track vs. Free

If you choose to take the verified track it offers plenty of extra reading material, podcasts, videos, and even books. I ordered several (you don't have to and they're at your own cost but I was so fascinated by aspects of this class that I wanted the extra material). I'd guesstimate I spent about twenty-plus hours a week on the class. That doesn't include reading the books I purchased, which I haven't done yet. 

Assignments were almost all pleasant, and they were all fascinating. They're suggested tasks to help discover what happiness practices work best for you. I learned things about myself in this class that I thought I knew, but didn't. (Who knew, but some of the things that have annoyed me about hubby for the past centuries aren't all him.) It taught me better communication skills and ways to incorporate happiness-inducing changes in my life. 

It is time well spent

A few of the incredible concepts studied that I found particularly profound are as follows:

Mindfulness, the difference between being Thankful and Gratitude, Empathy, Compassion, Kindness, Maximizer/Satisficer, Why Self-Compassion trumps Self-Esteem, Flow, Habituation & Adaptation, Gratitude in Schools/Romantic Relationships, The Science of Awe. 

As with other edX classes, you can skip the verified track and take it for free. However you chose to increase your happiness, I do recommend checking out The Science of Happiness and the Greater Good Science Center. Especially during this anxiety-producing pandemic, it can help you sort your priorities and learn coping skills. 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Pyramids of Giza: Ancient Egyptian Art & Archaeology—Harvard edX—an incredible online learning opportunity in the time of a pandemic

Feeling restless? Wanderlust? Me too. I found a great way to scratch that itch during this pandemic and next time, someday, when I can go back to Egypt, I'll know a heck of a lot more about what I'm looking at thanks to I took a HarvardX online course called Pyramids of Giza: Ancient Egyptian Art and Archaeology

There's even a free version, so you have no excuse if Ancient Egypt is your thing. I've never had so much fun taking a class before in my life. It wasn't just the subject matter either—hieroglyphs, Old Kingdom tombs, and pharaohs. The professor was brilliant, engaging and articulate. I enjoyed it so much I tore through an eight week course in half the time. Mind you, I put way more time into it than if I'd moved at the leisurely 2-4 hours a week suggested. 

The Great Pyramids of Egypt on the Giza Plateau are surrounded by tombs. They're underground and unlike the Great Pyramids (Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure), many are decorated with art. The pyramids themselves are named after the kings who built them, from an older kingdom, and are from a more basic plainer time. When I went inside the Great Pyramid I was surprised at the utter lack of decoration, not realizing it was from a time before Ancient Egyptians decorated tombs so extensively.

The underground tombs in the Giza complex were excavated in part by Harvard's own Archaeologist George Reisner. The class goes over the countries and archaeologists involved in the heyday of Egyptology in a truly engaging and informative way. It's easy to follow and retain, and I daresay, it was interesting and fun. 

This is a photo I took with my phone in February of 2018 when I was in Egypt. The pyramids are in Cairo, Egypt but located on what's called the Giza Plateau. From this photo you can see some of a mastaba field (mastabas are above ground tomb portions). I did have the opportunity to go down into a couple of the tombs near the pyramids and it was amazing. The underground tombs are from newer kingdoms and rich with painted walls, hieroglyphs, statuary, and are beautifully artistic. Although I wish I'd taken this class first, it still helped me understand more in retrospect. It was my first trip to Egypt and the sheer magnitude of it overwhelmed me. 

Being the fiction writer in a group of Egyptologists, I focused on taking in as much as I could and simply experiencing it. I climbed inside Khufu (the biggest pyramid), rode a camel around Giza to the Sphinx, and took endless photos of everything. They tried to educate me on the different kingdoms, dynasties, and hieroglyphs, but I really wanted to prowl through the dusty bookshops, sail in a felucca on the Nile, and score a purse with a camel painted on it. Fortunately Harvard edX showed me what I missed. Now, like the rest of the world's stilled travelers, I wait for the someday when I can resume my hands-on learning with renewed appreciation, thanks to this incredible class. 

Amherst Writers & Artists—Finding Your Voice

  Amherst Writers & Artists At my first writing conference I heard well-established writers enthusing about the Amherst Writers & Ar...