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Thursday, September 13, 2012

What I’ve Learned about Writing and Other Stuff

Now that I’m just a year short of my 80’s, it’s a good time to reflect on what has been an important part of my life for close to 78 years: stories.  My first recollection of stories goes back to sitting in my mother’s lap as she told me about the Little Red Hen, Lambikins, and others.  Summertime in Hot Springs, Arkansas and the sound of cicadas and the sweet smell of  mimosas, the day dimming into night on the front porch, and the rocker where my mother held me, all blend into indelible memory and the beginning of my love for stories. 

I loved books because of the mysteries inside them.  Before I was able to read, I would thumb through my picture books, making up stories about what I saw there, some of it remembered from what my brothers and parents had read to me, some from my own inventions.  The mystery of those letters of the alphabet that told of so many wonders thrilled me and I have searched the mysteries ever since.  By the time I was able to read and write, the stories became my own as I developed plots and rhymes and people to inhabit them.  I learned about writing because I wrote.

Eventually poems began to join the stories I developed, and my deeper life became that of writer regardless of what my outer life was experiencing.  My first published piece was an essay in a magazine for high school girls.  Added to that was a prize for an essay about peace in a national high school publication.  My career was on the brink of being launched.  A ninth grade assignment was to report on a lifetime career that we were interested in, the values of such endeavors, the requirements for entering that career, and reasons for wanting to take that road.  I chose to report on being a free-lance writer.  No one else in my class had any such interest.  My playwright uncle was willing to give me pointers for the project, and somewhere in a trunk is that completed assignment.

In college I wrote for two magazines and the student newspaper, serving as editor of the paper my senior year.  I was certain my future was clear.  In a file cabinet stored in our garage are folders containing everything I’ve written since I was 12.  The files bulge as I added more and more.  I began submitting articles to magazines.  I wrote my first novel.  These were conceived as I was also conceiving four children, so it was a productive era for me, at least in offspring.  The writing, however, seemed to offer up nothing but rejection slips.

I then turned to poetry almost exclusively and had some success in contests and publication, but nothing spectacular.  A poetry group provided critiques for me so that I learned more and gained some skills in that field.  But no grand break-throughs as a recognized poet.  I did gain more knowledge as I began to be part of various poetry groups and programs.  These experiences were to serve me well many years later when I returned to that genre.

My first professional venture outside the home was in teaching English, finally attaining a master’s degree in that field, which was to be a great help for future endeavors and helped me hone my own writing skills.  In my 40’s, I answered a call to the ministry, and I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church. The bulk of my writing then consisted of sermons, newsletters, and letters to the editor of nearby newspapers.  I learned during those years that to be a dedicated writer was not possible while working full time in another field, and so the literary efforts were put aside for the most part, although I continued my letters to editors.  These were to get me into trouble at times with church folks, but I continued to express my concerns for peace and justice in public venues.

It all began to come together after my retirement.  Computers were available—a great aid to my writing, helping me keep track of my efforts.  By this time I was also able to draw upon what I had learned through my experience in ministry and enrich stories and poems with new insights.
That experience led to publishing books, both as self-published with, and through an independent publisher, All Things That Matter Press.  In the process of publishing book-length works my education broadened rapidly, as I accumulated many new insights into what is required in publishing for general readerships.  

In a nutshell then, here’s what I have learned about writing and the little I might add about being published.  It doesn’t vary a great deal from what other writers have also learned, but it took me a bit longer to figure out all the corners and twists to this adventure with words.

1)      Authors, like actors and legislators, don’t find success overnight.  Stardom is achieved through hard and constant work at our craft.  A first draft isn’t worth much.  It requires revision after revision.  This blog has been revised many times, re-writing sentences and getting rid of sentences and paragraphs.  Unlike sculptors in marble, our first cuts can be redeemed and polished until we have something worth sharing with the public, or at least with a few others.
2)      There is a gold nugget in what we have conceived, but we must mine the words and hone our language until it is visible.  We do have a gem somewhere in that pile of lines and paragraphs, but we must persevere to uncover it.  Don’t give up before you have completed the task of developing your piece.  It may not be a masterpiece for the ages, but it is your creation and deserves its proper editing to become what you envisioned.

Our human nature seeks a story.  We learn through stories and we teach through stories, if we are wise.  We also know when we have read or heard a good story that does not cheat us by leaving out important details, or swamp us with unnecessary details.  A poem can tell a story just as prose writing can, but in a different way.  We seek to know who we are and why we do as we do.  Good stories will lend light to that search.

As for publication, the countless ways in which that can take place is more than I will enumerate here, other than to note the categories.  Of course traditional publishing by a corporate publisher continues to be possible.  New opportunities, however, exist.  One can self-publish through a choice of these methods.  I have done so through  There is also online publishing known as “e-books” as well as various magazine publications.  My choice is to be published through an independent publisher, such as the one I have found:  All Things That Matter Press.  It is located in Maine, and takes on both established and new authors.  My book on the experiences of children during World War II is with ATTMP, and another one, about rescued animals, will be coming out with them soon.  The authors are encouraged to promote one another’s books, and we have an active community doing just that.  I have learned much about the opportunities for publishing my own work through the experiences of others in our ATTMP group, as well as simply browsing the internet to see what might be of help.

The best part of writing, I have learned, is the satisfaction of seeing your hard work, created by persistence, at last in print.  Not all that is published is of Pulitzer quality, but it is our own work and we have proved to ourselves that we need no longer simply to tell friends that we are “writing a book,” that never seems to be finished.   My advice to anyone who has something to share with others from your research and creativity is Go For It!