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When Generosity is a Misdemeanor

Behind a closed bedroom door I was wrapping birthday gifts for my daughter Audra. She was turning ten. Her sister Emily was only two at the time and watching me work put her in the spirit of giving as well. With no ability to buy gifts on her own, Emily ran around the house finding small items to offer her older sister, mimicking my efforts at wrapping by crumpling each gift inside notebook paper she had found in my office wastepaper basket. At the family party that evening, Audra thanked her little sister for the gift of her own hairbrush, the pencil without a point, the (missing) keys to the family car—all lovingly crushed inside the used binder paper and added to the pile of birthday presents.

“Wow, like, thanks for the …uh, spoon,” Audra said to the delighted Emily, and we collectively stared in dismay at the growing heap of broken, useless and discarded junk, lovingly deposited.  Inspired by her success, Emily nodded and raced wordlessly from the room to find more offerings, the point being we are generous by nature.  Seriously. We’re born altruistic.

Toddlers 18 months old overwhelmingly and instinctively moved to help researchers when they purposely dropped their pencils during an experiment. No words, just an immediate and genuine desire to help.

 But when has “help,” actually hurt?

 There’s a story in that intersection–the one between help and hurt.

Like the time my friend Deni and I spent an entire day picking strawberries in a Virginia farmer’s field, paying by the pound for a haul we could barely carry to the car.  Pounds and pounds of the luscious sweet fruit. It was worth being hunched over in the fields for hours, because I was going to try my hand at making jam to give as Christmas gifts. We got home totally exhausted but feeling truly productive having each harvested an enormous tub of berries. We washed them carefully at Deni’s apartment, picked out all the stems and leaves and dried them off. Deni was a veteran at this whole earth-mother thing so when she came out of the kitchen and sprinkled all my strawberries with a preservative to retain their color, I was grateful for her help–until I got home with my ruby-red treasure and discovered she’d used salt.

Or the time my grandfather took the train out from Ohio to Maryland to stay with us the summer I was 8, and spent the entire three months scraping and sanding a set of two matching wooden chairs down to the original warm cherry wood for my mother. The night before he left, I found them and thought I could help brighten them up a bit. I painted them all with two thick coats of  outdoor house paint.

Write about a time you, or a character, tried to help someone with disastrous consequences. Have you ever given someone lost, directions, only to realize you told them something totally wrong ? Ever given the wrong medicine? Taken care of a relative’s pet with less than stellar results?  Ever trimmed your sister’s bangs to the point of no return? Lost something you’d been entrusted with? Wrecked a borrowed car? Have you ever been “helped” by a perfectionist when you’re not one?

Tap into the conflict between disaster and desire.


Writing from a Past Life Memory

I was at a dinner party recently where the conversation drifted to past lives.  For ¾ of the world’s cultures, reincarnation is a given, no one doubts it for a minute, but in a lot of cultures comprising the US, we don’t get do–overs. Oh, if only.

So I had a past life regression once facilitated by a reputable, highly- educated and trained hypnotist/ therapist/ past life regressionist. It was fascinating. I can’t tell you that I spoke in another language, or recognized anyone from my present incarnation, but I recognized a feeling that has haunted me all my life:


In the past life that came to me as I lay on the leather couch that day, I was standing outside the walls of an early 18th century fort with a stockade fence enclosing it. I had been standing alone since dawn, looking out at the dark woods waiting for the return of the love of my life. I waited all day and as night fell, I finally had to re-enter the fort where I continued to wait for days, weeks, months, and years. I had a slightly vague memory of  raising two little girls on my own in that fort and finally, as I died, I realized that I had wasted that life in its entirety waiting for someone who never came back.

The grief was like a physical blow—like standing in front of a freight train which had been on silent approach for centuries and then just blasted right through me. I understood suddenly that the person I had been waiting for had wanted to return but had been unable to—because of circumstances beyond his control. 

The feeling was so familiar it made me wonder whether I’d been born into this life still waiting.

Write about waiting: open your story in a waiting room, or make it someone waiting for news– an email, a letter. Maybe it is someone waiting for a child to be born, a bus to arrive, a diagnosis to be clarified, an interview, a kiss.

Or the return of someone who left without explanation: father, mother, lover, sibling, friend, mentor. Enter the story through the waiting and see what arrives.


Tom Clancy’s Secret to Writing Success

Tom Clancy has died. No word on why. He was clearly too young, 66, and I’m sorry.

Back in 1990, Clancy came to Annapolis to address the Maryland Writers’ Association.  He peered into the darkened auditorium of Maryland Hall that evening from behind huge 1980’s–style glasses. Unpublished writers sat gathered together in his presence hoping for some words of wisdom, our desire palpable. We wanted Clancy to share his formula for success, his magic. We wanted some of his mojo– his secret– for having gone from the obscurity of ordinary insurance salesman, to the fame and fortune that came with the publication of “The Hunt for Red October.”

He had wanted to write a book for a long time, Clancy explained, but he continued to sell insurance. He had had a great idea for years, but had continued to sell insurance.  “What I did,” Clancy said, “was waste all that time. All that time I could have been enjoying the success I have now. All the years I could have been a best- selling author with a book translated into 20 languages, I spent selling insurance.” And Clancy didn’t know then, that he would not live to be an old man.

“You probably have ideas for a memoir or novel,” he said. “So what are you waiting for? Write the damn book.” Of course that was 23 years ago, so I may have the phrasing wrong but the message is verbatim and he was talking to you.

Raising kids?  Write the damn book.

Working for the government?  Write the damn book.

Running a shop? Selling stocks? Teaching? Repairing cars?

I can hear Clancy now saying just what he said about all our excuses that night.

“Cry me a river. Just write the damn book.”

#Letting Go of the Old Story: aka Trading Up

I’ve just come from visiting my mother—you remember—my mother who thinks she is going to “use up” her eyes if she watches television. She still thinks she’s going to run out of sight,  the way you might run out of gas. I think she sees this as if she is a car that already has 200,000 miles on it. Just keep that thing in the garage. Use in emergencies only!

I keep telling her vision is like love—the more you use it the stronger it gets. Sometimes I say that I’m quoting her doctor. I use his name and I say all this emphatically, with an authority I don’t have and she doesn’t believe.

But here’s the point. Did you know that “truths” you are taught before the age of five are almost impossible to relinquish? The brain gets hardwired in such a way that when you are older, the belief you were taught in early childhood has become a “procedural memory.” It is so deeply embedded in your psyche that to recall that memory or tap into that belief, is an automatic reflex, rather than conscious choice. You’ve been hardwired implicitly by people bigger than you—people you wanted to please and upon whom you were dependent for your survival. That’s one of the reasons it is difficult to see yourself as different from what you were told you were as a child. (The bossy one, the athletic one, the back-talker, the bright one.) It makes new choices about things such as religion difficult as an adult as well.

No matter what new information you acquire, or how your belief system evolves on the surface, it’s as if your brain is an old house. As you’ve matured, you’ve renovated. You’ve put in all new wiring and electrical outlets, but every time you turn on the current, the old circuits light too.

What “truths” do you find impossible to relinquish even though you know better? These can be ‘truths” you were told about relatives, yourself, or the way the world works. Write a new and better story and teach it to your brain until it feels natural. Were you the smart alec? Or were you just an inquisitive soul with a lot of questions? Were you introverted? Or just thoughtful? Write a piece of memoir in which you first learned something about yourself as told to you by the big people. Now write about letting it go.

Plot Your Life

     There are only two plots: somebody goes on a trip and a stranger comes to town. “And somebody loves a dog,” my husband adds. In the next room, Kaya thumps her tail at the word “dog.”

     In “The Story Within, New Insights and Inspiration for Writers,” the rules for writing well are the rules for living well—what is true for skilled storytelling, is true for the art of relationships, and relationships are the foundation upon which you build a life.

     Think about it: what are the rules for writing that apply to life as well?

  • Nothing is as it appears. (Check.)
  • When things get flat, make something big happen. (Check)
  • Avoid clichés. (Check, check.)
  • In our characters’ deepest fear there is longing. (Oh, yes.)
  • Your story is as compelling as your characters are honest. (Right again.)
  • To move a story forward, take the story deeper. 
  • Show, don’t just tell.

     You get the idea. Writing. Life. There’s no difference when it comes to satisfaction and a deep sense of well being. 

     So what is the plot of your life? “A girl is born to Midwestern parents, and” …she discovers, what?

     “This guy falls in love with a woman, not his wife and ?”

     “A guy who always thought he would love working for the government, leaves his job at the Treasury Department and ? what?”

     Write out the plot of your life—where it began, what happened to you, –use cause /effect to keep yourself going. Make this the story of just one year, just one season, just one loss, just one relationship. Then go back and delete the uninteresting parts. In this world, you get to edit!

     Remember: plot is a problem. If you write fiction, make this plot someone else’s life.

     If it is your life? Put it on the page one conflict, one mystery, one discovery at a time.

     And write a happy ending.


One of my older sisters and I look a great deal alike. When we were little our mother sometimes dressed us alike, as if we’d be more appealing as twins. But the similarities are superficial. My sister is a perfectionist and flawlessly organized, whereas my philosophy is “close enough,” “good enough,” and… “who will know?”

I was visiting this sister recently, opened a storage closet and discovered the entire set of plastic horses she got for Christmas when we were 4 and 8. The shiny black stallion reared on his molded back legs, his little chain reins still attached. In the depths of the cardboard box, the creamy palomino still wore his tiny saddle, perfectly intact from decades ago. And I thought,

That’s just wrong. So wrong.

I always return from these visits equally inspired to organize my closets and demoralized because I just don’t care enough to keep them that way past Wednesday. And my childhood toys—Scottie Dog, Big Red, and my Ginny doll— are pretty much gone. I had a bride doll for a long, long time, but then I found a box turtle and put him in the bride doll’s case for safe keeping and ruined that real estate. Permanently.

But this got me to thinking about someone’s need to keep things in perfect condition, in perfect repair. And when asked, my sister said, “I think I’m afraid that what we have today is all we’ll ever have—that we have to make what we have last forever.

Write about perfectionism.  What is the source? Fear? Control? Are those the same thing?  Start a scene with a character who insists on perfection: in a meal, a child, a lover, his own appearance, a friend’s loyalty? Or anchor a vignette in your own aspirations for perfection: who will love you more if you are flawless? What do you gain? At what price? What do you conceal? What happens when you place yourself or your character in a conflict where imperfection rules the day? A crying child? A fly in the soup? A beloved friend has told a secret? A marriage that looks enviable has fault lines running through it?  Just a scene, just a point of entry. Go.

Join me Saturday, Sept. 14th, 2013, at Maryland Hall in Annapolis for the writing workshop “Subject and Voice: New Tips.”  Call The Writer’s Center at 301-654-8664 to register.


Your Brain on Dreams: A Writing Prompt

Your brain hates to lie. You know this. The tension between wanting to keep a secret and the impulse to spill the beans, is spelled ‘s-t-r-e-s-s.’ But your brain is absolutely compelled to tell stories and there may be some gold to mine in this fact for you as a writer.

Your brain is constantly recording images, sensations, new information and events throughout your day. At night, when you enter REM sleep, all those pieces of stimulating information need to be sorted and filed—some to short- term memory, some to long- term, and so on. It’s a left brain job that can’t be done  without whole-brain help. To record these new sensations the  brain must make the images into stories—hence you dream. Your dream is your brain converting life to memory in the form of a narrative—however crazy!  So. Your dream in which your uncle becomes your brother, and in the dream this seems normal, and then he takes you to lunch and in the dream, lunch is on an island near Madagascar…is a neurological filing system at work. Brilliant!

What if you wrote a story in which the entire narrative were being revealed piece by piece, each night, to the dreamer through a dream? Does he start trying to take naps during the day to get to the next chapter? Does he refuse to wake up? What does he discover that could only be revealed through dreams? Is his brain trying to divest itself of a secret so great it can only be whispered in the dark?  Is he having a recurrent nightmare? Give it try. See what you can dream up!