Writing Prompt: There and Back Again: Memoir Writing on Home and Travel

Sundog I've been thinking a lot about place lately as I am scheduled to begin a memoir class on home and travel. As I've been pulling together my syllabus and lesson plans, my mind has been keenly focused on the subject and as a result I've come across so many interesting pieces of writing focusing. A fellow blogger, Deb German Young, wrote a beautiful piece capturing the heat of Memphis and her childhood there while she searches for Avalon in her now everyday life in Vermont. A friend shared with me a piece about his grandmother's home in Vermont and a childhood fight that had him feeling like an outsider on many levels. This morning I stumbled across an announcement that West Virginia University Press is starting a book series called In Place focusing on books firmly rooted in place. For numerous years my primary form of income has been writing for magazines such as Upper Valley Life, Kearsarge Magazine, Rutland Magazine—all regional publications, but I don't think I gave much thought about how much the place where I live and was raised affected me until I started traveling. So many of the differences in political, religious views, customs, even affection for pets, I could soon trace back to my northern New England upbringing. My setting influenced if not my actual beliefs at the very least the way I approached things. I began to see that even my fears were based on where I came from. I have friends from afar who don't think twice of getting in a car and driving through six lanes of traffic, while many of the people here close to home find a sojourn to Burlington a big challenge. Our world here is small in scale and while I am not implying that we do not seek broader horizons, for many of us it is a leap to do so. I realized that my best friends have not strayed too far from home and my own family all lives within a 50-mile radius of each other. I come from people who stick and my own journeys in to the bigger world have thus, been perhaps been viewed as greater adventures than they might be to someone else. Each summer I get on a plane and travel 7,000 miles away to Hawaii. When I was 12, 16, even 25, I could not have imagined myself going that far.

I took a writing class two years ago with memoirist Abigail Thomas who kept encouraging me to write more about my family and their rural way of life. I couldn't quite grasp the uniqueness of it then, how much of it is a part of my story. I am beginning to now. Perhaps that is why I decided to teach this class. I have a good group of seven or eight students and I am excited to see where they are from and where this class will take us. I am also intrigued to find more memoirs and books where place plays a role. I recently found a few on Amazon that I am eager to read: Small Beneath the Sky by Lorna Corzier and No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments by Brooke Berman. One of my favorite descriptions of a place is not in a memoir but in Steinbeck's Cannery Row.  I'd love to hear any suggestions anyone else might have.

When I attended the workshop with Abigail Thomas she gave us a memoir prompt on place that I intend to use with my students the first day of class: Write 2 Pages on Where you Are From. I'd love to hear responses.

Journal Jam

IMG_1094_2 My sister-in-law Gretchin and I are putting together a series of joint art and writing prompt classes that we are calling Journal Jam. We will be announcing the location of the first workshop shortly. In the meantime, we have both been working on our own journal pages. One of the prompts I love to offer comes from a book by Tristine Rainer called Your Life as Story. In it Rainer gives a prompt on How to be ________. The writer than offers a list of criteria describing how to be ______. Gretchin and I plan to use this prompt in our class and as an example I tried my hand at my own.

The night before I had been visiting Gretchin's house where my three-year-old niece Ellie was dancing around in the buff. I decided to write How to Be Three-Year-Old Ellie Dancing. Here's the result:

How to Be Three-Year-Old Ellie Dancing

Be Stark Naked

Lift Your Arms in the Air


Mold Your Hands into Tight Little Fists

Roll Them One Over the Other

Do Your Magic

Stare Up Into the Sky with a Smug Look of Satisfaction

Burst Into Song

Sing the Theme to Frozen

Twirl Again

Lose Interest

Walk Across the Room, Strutting like a Drunken Supermodel

Turn and Walk Back Toward Me

Shout "Hey Bee, Look at This!"

Twirl One Final Time.

I then went to work on my own journal pages, but as so often happens the preliminary sketches seemed better than the final result, so I experimented a couple of times.

One of the things I love about digital collage and one of the reasons I turned to working in that medium is that nothing every has to go waste. You can always use a "bad" photo or sketch and transform it into something else. I started to do so with one of the iphone pics I took of my sketch.

I had an older picture of Ellie and when I put them together it seemed as if the two were dancing. I am still working on the collage. This is just the preliminary piece. I'm calling it Shadow Dancers or Fairytale 699.

blog shadow dancing

I'm hoping to add a version of this to my journal pages as well.


My Writing Process Blog Tour (and a writing prompt...)

My new solar Pope, blessing my writing process  

My friend and fellow animal lover and writer, Barbara Techel of Joyful Paws recently asked me  to participate in the My Writing Process Blog Tour. I first learned of Barbara when I read her memoir Through Frankie's Eyes. Actually, that’s not entirely true, I had heard of Barbara earlier when I went seeking a doggie cart or doggie wheelchair for my crippled pug Vader. In googling doggie carts I came upon Eddie’s Wheels in Sherburne, Massachusetts and also the story of Barbara and her dog Frankie, a dachshund that suffered from invertebrate disc disease and used a cart from Eddie’s Wheels to get around. Later when I read her book, Barbara and I had a chance to talk and become “Internet friends” since we live in different parts of the country. I admire so much Barbara’s warmth and authenticity in her writing.

Image of Barbara Techel from Joyful Paws

Although my post was supposed to be up earlier today, I spent the weekend in the emergency room with my mother who had a reaction to her blood pressure medicine and thus, am a little late in getting my post up. Yet, this is all part of life and definitely one of the many complications that can make the life of a writer and blogger challenging—how do we cope with deadlines amidst life’s crises? No easy answer, but something to address when it comes to talking about process. In any case, while I am late to post, I am happy to participate in this tour that allows writers to share what they are doing and how they are doing it. Why is this important?

Writing can be an isolating venture—hours alone toiling over a story, article, blog post or even journal entry with often little feedback on how the result will be received. We wonder am I the only one who feels this way? How does Stephen King get up every morning and churn out 600 page novels while I have been working two hours on a simple paragraph of introduction? I have written a number of times on my blog about the challenges in writing daily and in wondering if my content is up to par. This became especially challenging because I had a writing mentor who saw no problem in posting several times a day. One thing a tour like this one shows is everyone is different. And, that’s okay. I was feeling down about my own limitiations the other day when I turned on a podcast of an interview with Kelly Braffet, daughter-in-law of Stephen King, b.t.w. Anyway, the interviewer who has a regular podcast and blog launched the interview with an apology for his own lack of posts and noted that while he had hoped to produce a daily blog he was cutting it back to when he was inspired because he just couldn’t produce the quality of content he wanted writing daily. I felt redeemed. I am not alone. And, you aren’t either! It may not be daily posts, it could be a different issue altogether, but writers face similar challenges and share similar joys. Don’t believe me? Follow the Writing Process Blog Tour and learn what we as writers have in common…

My Writing Process:

What Am I Working On?

This should be an easy one, right? Truth is a number of things. My day job is as a freelance writer for several publications in the Vermont and New Hampshire area. Right now I am working on an article on radon—transcribing tapes and preapring to do a phone interview in an half-an-hour—for a real estate magazine; writing short pieces on a local gallery, a skincare company, and a business that produces a range of specialty food items made from quince for a second publication and a business spotlight on a Rutland dentist for a third. That is my day job.

I also have several overdue blog posts lined up: my pug Alfie has been sick and as part of the her new diet I embarked on an adventure in transforming her kibble into doggie biscuits; I spent a day visiting the multitude of pugs at my friend Joan’s in which one dog was lost then found, another stray discovered on the roadside and my Mom rushed to the ER. These are all posts that have been churning around in my mind like laundry in a washing machine, but I’m wondering how many will make it to see the light of day and how many, like a stray sock, will be left hidden spinning away indefinitely. There are only so many hours in a day. And, under the surface, beneath the scenes, in my spare time I am working on a memoir about the influence of my friend Joan and her pugs on my life and a book of short stories with dog-related themes. I have actually started the dog stories and have a wealth of blog posts to craft into the memoir and continue to revisit these as often as I can. I can truly say I am working on both. In the back of my mind are several other ideas—a book of my photo collages, a children’s book on one of the more interesting pugs I’ve known, and a half-finished children’s book featuring Vader. Those are there stored in the back closet if we are to press on with the clothing metaphor.

Why Do I Write What I Do:

Hmm, this is an important one and an amorphous one. A question that actually needs to be addressed in the writing of the memoir at the very least. The articles? I write them because I need a paycheck and because I love to write. Therefore I take what they give me whether it is an article on toilets (yes, I’ve written that. Used to be when you googled me that was the first article that came up. It's entitled "Take the Plunge" if you want to look it up) or on radon. The constant advice to any writer? Write what you know and love and I love dogs and a lot of other people love theirs, too, so they show up in my stories and my blog posts as other interests—my photography, my art, my nieces and nephews, my struggles and dreams. To be honest, I think for most writers, writing, seeing the world in story, is how we understand it. So, whether it is fiction or memoir, we write what we are trying to understand, what interests us, what scares us. We write to discover what we know or want to know…When it comes to my friend Joan and her pugs her life intrigues me and my reaction to it does as well. I’m trying to discover what lies at the heart of that attraction so I’m writing my way to understanding.

How Does My Writing Process Work:

In my freelance work I’m the consummate professional. I’m great with deadlines. I get an assignment, I create a folder for it. I research online, I set up an interview and follow up interviews, I transcribe my tapes. I go to my office or the local café and I write the story. It sometimes goes to the interviewee for fact checking or directly to my editor and I'm done. My rewriting occurs as I go along. Typically, there is not much time for anything else.

My blog posts? On a good day they come pouring out of me or I take some quiet time and draft a quality post of which I’m proud. On most days, I try to type something in the wee hours of the morning after interiews and articles have been completed and classes taught. When I am lucky I get a picture up and a post written before I drag my weary body off to bed. Lately, bed has been winning. I am one of those writers who needs more time to think and feel before crafting a piece and time is in short supply. I’m working on it.

My stories? This is where time seriously becomes an issue. If I am going to craft a good short story, I need time. A few hours in which to cocoon myself somewhere usually with an ample supply of tea and food nearby and immerse myself in my craft. This is the same for article writing, by the way, forget pen and paper, tea and snacks are the must haves in my writing process! You can get lost in that creative cocoon and it is a wonderful place to be. I look forward to those moments even as I war against them. War against them? You heard me corrrectly. I recently read a book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, which speaks about breaking through blocks and winning your inner creative battles. Art doesn’t have to be a struggle, but it often is and it seems when it comes time to write I’m not the only creative person who finds every means imaginable to procrastinate. It’s why I recommend to my students joinging a class or writing group. Deadlines help. It is good to be accountable. That said I think some self-imposed deadlines are in order to get my short story writing off the ground again. I just wish those stray dogs and emergencies would hold off for awhile This  brings me to another lesson—it is important as a writer to not only be disciplined, but to be forgiving of oneself. We are only human.

Finally, don't forget to laugh! There are volumes written on the frustrations of writing, the writing process, writer's block. My best advice to writers, don't take yourself too seriously. Part of being forgiving, is to have a sense of humor. It's okay to miss a blog post or get a poor critique, you can get it "write" tomorrow. (Bad puns are allowed as well.) Part of my writing process involves stopping to smile. Sometimes that means leaving the computer behind and getting out to play and sometimes it means filling my office with wee amusements such as my new solar Pope featured above. Struggling with a sentence? I just look up from my work and see the Pope offering his "sunny" blessing. I smile and all seems right with the world.

So now that you’ve heard what I have to share, tune in next week to the blogs of the three writers I have rcommended to see what you can learn from them.

Meet Gretchin Gifford, Your Mom Is Strange:


Gretchin at the Bottom of the Heap (photo by me, btw)

Okay, I have to admit a partiality here because Gretchin Gifford is my sister-in-law, mother to the most wonderful girl on the planet, my niece Ellie, and yes, she is indeed strange, but in a good way, she can tell you all about it on her blog Your Mom is Strange in which she writes about the newfound joys and challenges of motherhood and the strange, wonderful comedy that is life! Her writing keeps getting better and shoot, I admit it, I’m a wee bit jealous. How can she be raising this beautiful, precocious two-year-old and still find time to write and write well? Damn you Gretchin! Seriously though, do check her out. I think you may just love her as much as I do!

Meet Rachel Barlow, Picking My Battles:

One of Rachel's drawings

Rachel makes blogging and drawing and writing look easy, although I bet she wouldn’t think so. Rachel and I met as fellow writers in Jon Katz’s Hubbard Hall Writers’ Group and Rachel has just soared since then launching her wonderfully creative blog, Picking My Battles and a host of other endeavors from writing short stories and selling the online as ebooks to her forthcoming ebook of drawings entitled It’s a Sketchy Life. I love Rachel’s drawings and animations and her keen observations on mothering and daily life. Her blog is a small gem whether she’d admit it or not.

Meet Cathy Armato of Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them:

An image of Cathy from Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

Cathy Armato is a new friend. I met her at in Las Vegas at the airport. We had both just arrived to attend Blogpaws, a conference for pet bloggers. I was drawn to Cathy’s warm personality and kind smile and found that we had much in common when I frequently found us gravitating toward the same places at the conference. I am just getting acquainted with her blog Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them, which seems to be filled with a wealth of information!

Writing Prompt: Take a moment and share your writing process? What gets your writing started? What are you working on and why do you write what you do? Feel free to comment and share on my blog!

Writing Prompt: Happiness is ______________

IMG_6814 I tacked a fortune from a Chinese fortunate cookie to my wall several years ago that reads, “Happiness is Activity.” It is certainly my motto, so when a friend calls up with a proposition for a fun-filled experience, I seldom turn it down nor do I ask a lot of questions (especially if that friend knows me well and I deem her trustworthy like my friend Sheila.)

So, when Sheila sent me a message asking me if I wanted to go a Vermont Humanities Council sponsored reading by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins a couple of weeks ago I said “yes.” There was some momentary confusion as my scattered mind tried to differentiate between poet Billy Collins and the musical Billy Elliot, which led to another friend believing that we were going to go see Irish comedian Billy Connolly (who Sheila thought was Australian, but after a Google search, we discovered was actually Scottish), but even had we not solved the problem of the “Billys,” I was in from the start – any of the three would have been fine with me just to be out doing something.

We went and I loved it and quickly said “yes” again when Sheila suggested I attend a free poetry workshop that was starting in Randolph and would be meeting on the Second Wednesday of each month from now until next spring. Mind you, my upcoming Wednesdays from October through December are filled with teaching, but I had one free Wednesday coming up and those in the spring, so I contacted the leader, requested and received permission to attend, and found myself sitting last Wednesday night with around 18 people, one my former boss from the local paper, writing poetry in the basement of the library. I’m still not sure what the group is called – I didn’t ask – and only received the letter describing what it was about after I signed up, but I was game and in spite my nerves at sitting directly across from my former boss and trying not to squirm as we shared our poetic scratchings, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

We are reading Billy Collins’ anthology of contemporary poets, Poetry 180, and using writing prompts to create work of our own. For our first prompt, our leader handed out a scrap of paper with some lines a friend had emailed her.

“Has been and Is are my old friends. We go back. Will be is much less trustworthy.” We were supposed to use these lines to inspire a poem, while hanging on to the concept: Here, was my fledgling effort:



I took your well-read hand

Each callous and wrinkle painstakingly memorized

And promised to open it again


To study it anew, fresh, novel, untried

It didn’t work

I knew the whispers of your creaking knuckles,

the moans of your weathered fingers too well

to restart from page one

So I thought let’s revisit them


hoping the withered leaflets of delicate skin would not tear

that time would not write a new book,

one never knows…

if Tomorrow

holds the remainder bin or the next bestseller


For the second prompt we had to choose any two words and repeat them three times in our opening line. I chose “later today.”


Later today, later today, later today

I will get around to what needs to be said

Later today, later today, later today,

I will finish what needs to be done

Later today, later today, later today

I will check off my list,

settle my accounts,

make peace with my enemies,

console my friends,

take a hot bath,

put my feet up,

pat my dog,

read a good book,

put tasks to rest

Later today, later today, later today

I will accomplish it all

That is if time remains

And doesn’t run out

Then again,

there’s always later today

Although I didn’t share around the table, I was pleased to actually put pen to paper without freezing up or blanking out. How do my students handle all those writing prompts I throw their way? But, I’m happy to be sharing them here and will continue as the workshop progresses. I wasn’t sure what I had signed up for, but once again saying “yes” and seeking out a new activity yielded some happy results.

Writing Prompt: Happiness is ____________________

"Say Yes!"

photo Writing Prompt: Write about a time you said “yes” – to anything…your job, your spouse, a new opportunity? Did it go right or wrong? What did you learn?

I am reading a book by William Shatner (Captain Kirk of Star Trek fame) called Shatner Rules.  One of Shatner’s rules is “say yes!” Whenever asked say yes, because you never know where the opportunity will lead.

Funny, I try to follow this advice as well as his advice to stay busy, hence my declaration to my best friend yesterday that I may be William Shatner – she didn’t even blink – she was probably not surprised as she has seen my tricorder and uniform. But this isn’t a post about William Shatner, it’s a post about being comfortable and realizing that as much as I try to follow his advice to always answer in the affirmative, I often wish I didn’t. I’d rather not say “yes” to things that make me uncomfortable. But if I only said “yes” to things that made me comfortable, I’d be saying “no” to an awful lot. And, I likely would have missed out on the things that make me the most – me!

Like teaching, for example, no matter how good it makes me feel afterward, no matter how wonderful that moment in the middle when everything kicks in and I think “yes” this is what I was made to do, I never, once look forward to it. Not once! I never feel comfortable going in.

A mentor and friend once told me that a little anxiety is a good thing, so I guess I should have known I’d be good at teaching; it always makes me feel anxious. Up there at the front of the classroom, I feel like that guy who just walked a tightrope across the Grand Canyon praying all the way. You never know when you might fall and there is no safety net; like a standup comedian whose joke falls dead, all the eyes are upon you. And, even when you suspect that it will turn out okay, even when it has a 100 times before, you never quite believe it, you know the risk is there. Until that moment when it’s not, when you know that it’s safe to stop praying and you can just go with the flow.

I think it may be this very anxiety that makes me good at what I do. Consider if the tightrope walker just barged on out across the rope, unconcerned. He is right to be anxious, putting himself smack dab out there on the precipice – past the precipice in his case – is a scary proposition. And, that’s how my students feel every time they read their essays. And, that’s how I feel, too. Putting yourself out there not only opens you up to failure, but to criticism and insecurity and all the ghosts from the past admonishing you to keep your mouth shut!

I can’t listen to those ghosts because I’m the teacher. If I remain quiet, it would be a pretty boring classroom, but because I understand that feeling I can empathize with my students, encourage them to find their voices and soon I hear the whispers rise in all of us – “yes.”

The woman in my assisted-living class, the one who said she couldn’t write anything last week and sat there until we encouraged her to just talk to us about her memories, wrote a wonderful piece this week inspired by our conversation. Yes, she began with an apology – “I’m just a beginner, I don’t know if I did this right” – but then launched into a beautiful piece about being an English speaker growing up with Czech grandparents. Her style was easygoing, amiable, a pleasure to listen to and follow along. I trusted where she’d lead.

A new student showed up, a reticent New Englander, who didn’t want to share much other than his name, but who I saw jotting down a list of memories after listening to his classmates.

Even crashing can be a good thing. Living on the road where I grew up was dangerous for the family cat. The only one that ever survived it was my cat Mime, who as a kitty got hit by a car and came back kicking. We always attributed her subsequent old age to the wisdom she learned from this event. I bet she never felt comfortable when crossing the road, yet she put her anxiety to use, learning how to negotiate the dangerous terrain. Once she followed me down the sidewalk when I needed to cross the road to the neighbors to deliver a package, batting me with her paw the whole way, like a mama cat, warning a stray kitty to stay in line. She didn’t seem to want me to veer from sidewalk into road.

My anxiety about sharing, about being up in front has become my greatest tool. It allows me to understand, not criticize, to encourage and bear witness, because out of the whimpers and apologies, despair and discomfort, if we stay with it and see the tightrope to its end, the whispers turn to hallelujahs, and we find ourselves shouting, comfortable or not, “yes, here I am” to the world.

Why not try saying “yes” to the writing prompt above. I’d love to see where it leads you. Feel free to share your responses in the comment section or use the contact form to send them to me privately.


Writing Prompt: Me and My Gals

Me and my pugs Busy weekend. Finished an article for Rutland Magazine in the wee hours and rose to visit with a friend and go on a shopping spree to Burlington. I've been enjoying sharing, reading and viewing the art, writing and photographs of a number of creative people on two new Facebook groups. Jon Katz's Open Group for Bedlam Farm and Maria Wulf's Fellow Artists. Both are growing and thriving and finding a life of their own. I think they are showing the desire for people to connect, encourage and learn from each other. That's nothing new, but as interconnected as the Internet makes us, it also has a reputation for cutting us off, keeping us isolated in a cyber world. In some ways, this is probably true, but in a broader sense these groups are demonstrating that the more things change the more they stay the same -- we humans, whatever our faults always seem to find a way to reach out, connect and keep sharing our stories whether it be across campfires and cave paintings, telephone wires or the world wide web, our tales reach out untethered to find a friend to listen to confirm that we are part of a greater whole.

Writing Prompt: In many ways our blog posts, tweets and Facebook updates are like ancient paintings on a cave's walls. They tell the stories of our times. If you were to leave a short and simple tale behind what would it be -- one post, one tweet, one status update. Write them now.

Writing Prompt: Tomorrow

Catherine on the Trampoline Last week I visited my sister-in-law to take pictures of her, my niece Catherine, and my brother's dog, Sophie, to send to my brother at bootcamp. In the golden light of the late afternoon sun, I shot myriad photos. Our family's farmland stood as a backdrop for most of them. I will be posting some of them throughout the next few days. I imagine my brother weary and physically drained, opening a letter on his bunk as the pictures pore out on his lap -- his gorgeous wife, his beautiful daughter, his sweet dog poised in front of his home. They will call to him and tug at his heart. They say no one knows what tomorrow looks like, but I study this picture of my niece and I see into the future and the woman she will become. I bet my brother will see it, too, and it will make his heart break a little bit more. He will feel both love and longing and he will look forward to coming home.

Writing Prompt: Picture the face of tomorrow. Write about it.


Writing Prompt: A Day at the Dog Park

Today was girl's day out. For my pugs that meant a couple of hours frolicking at the dog park. For me and my mom it meant manicures and dinner out. Our local dog park (when I say local I mean thirty miles away) has a big dog and small dog section. Today, both were pretty full. My pugs got to meet a 9 month old Maltese named Abby; a terrier mix named Remy who has blonde fur on the top of her head that looks like a mohawk: a min-pin/Chihuahua cross named Kirby, who also happened to be the star athlete in the group; a pug/Chihuahua mix (also known as  Chug) named Farrah; a pug/terrier cross named Iggy; two miniature poodles name LiLi and Tussa and more.

I loved watching the dogs interact. Most stayed fairly close to their owners at first, maybe going over and sniffing each other if someone looked interesting, but if one started running or went to catch a ball they all eventually joined in. My pugs, in typical pug fashion, were not the greatest of athletes, but they gave it the old college try. Alfie, stood like the nerdy kid on the playground, taking everyone in and then suddenly prancing up to the cool kids in an effort to fit in. Waffles was more like one of those weird, arsty girls that keeps to herself. She joined in when she wanted to, but spent most of the time roaming the fence looking to make her prison attempt. She broke the boundaries of the class system, ignoring the various cliques and idling over to King Kirby whenever she felt like it.

The owners were as equally diverse and from all walks of society. I met a math teacher, a woman who couldn't pay her rent, but was checking her cellphone to spring a death row dog, a couple who purchased their pretty puppy from Craig's List, another who had saved a rescue. One woman had gotten her poodles from a breeder. As varied their lifestyles and paths to their animals were, they were all obviously united in their love for them. And, as I sat in the sun, watching the dogs run and play and the people come and go, I realized we are all players on a giant playground -- all wanting to have fun and each alternating between the cool kid and nerd at times.

Writing Prompt: Where did you fit in on the playground? Were you the nerd in high school? The bully? The cool kid? The weirdo? Write about it.