Open Mic Time by Victoria Lynn Smith

Open mics give writers a place to share their writing, to gauge an audience’s response to their work, and to collect inspiration.

Open mics are one place I always get more than I give. I listen to writers read their poems, stories, and essays. Some read quietly; some perform. I laugh, sigh, hold back tears, and sometimes shift in my seat with the rest of the audience. Open mics give writers a place to share their writing, to gauge an audience’s response to their work, and to collect inspiration.

Memorable events happen at open mics. A father attended his first open mic to listen to his adult daughters read. He composed a poem about lichens during the intermission and read it after the break, receiving a raucous round of applause. A woman read her poem, a humorously honest tirade about the struggles of single parenthood, and the audience cheered with laughter. An elderly man read his story about funeral homes providing hospice care to make the progression from dying to burial more efficient, and it was disturbingly funny.

I started writing at age sixty. I started going to open mics at age sixty. It’s a correlation based on causation. Take my word for it.

I went to open mics, but I wasn’t ever going to get up and read.

Then I won a writing contest. I wasn’t able to read my story with the other winners at the reception. But that felt like winning too because I don’t like public speaking. My voice wobbles. My knees shimmy. My hands vibrate. At the same time, I’m inside of myself, feeling my body prepare to flee the tigers prowling in the audience and having an out of body experience.

Someone told me, “You should enter your story in Writers Read.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

My brain twitched as it was explained. Writers submit short stories, essays and poems. Judges select pieces to be read by the writers in front of an audience while being recorded to be played on Wisconsin Public Radio. What I heard: Enter a story, if the judges select it, YOU HAVE TO STAND IN FRONT OF PEOPLE AND READ—OUT LOUD.

I remembered my eighth-grade acting debut as the Wizard of Oz. I was the man behind the curtain. My part was small, but I was going to be mighty. On the night of the performance, my bellowing Wizard voice, perfected in rehearsals, sounded like a whimpering munchkin. I’d come down with a bad case of stage fright. I gave up acting.

A couple of years before I started writing, I recalled listening to Shonda Rhimes, a television producer, talk about her book, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person. Rhimes, an introvert, avoided media interviews because she had panic attacks. Then she decided for one year to say yes to things that scared her and write a book about it. So, I said yes and submitted my story to Writers Read.

My story was selected. Elation and apprehension. I’ve domesticated my stage fright over the years, but it’s an uneasy coexistence.

The program organizer advised participants to practice, READ AT OPEN MICS, and attend rehearsal the night before the performance. I envisioned tigers drinking beer and flexing their claws while I read my story at an open mic, but I was saying yes to all of it.

I practiced, reading to my iPhone recorder and listening to myself. I read at two open mics, working to make my story come alive. The spectators were friendly and supportive because many of them were also reading. Some readers were smooth and entertaining. Some were nervous and small voiced. But all of the readers gave me confidence that stage fright wouldn’t leap up and swallow me.

A week later when I read in front of the Writers Read audience, I didn’t sound like the mighty Wizard of Oz, but I didn’t sound like a whimpering munchkin either.

I decided to read again at another open mic, but two months later the pandemic shuttered community gatherings. Live open mics have been replaced with virtual ones. Recently, I read an essay at Superior Shares, a virtual gathering. For an hour I heard writers read their work to an audience. Some people came just to listen. When it was my turn, I was nervous, but I could tell other readers were nervous too. People shared joy, laughter, and heartache through the gift of their writing. The audience was supportive.

Even though virtual mics are live, the audience isn’t gathered in one place and the computer screen diminishes a sense of intimacy. But it’s not as intimidating to read to a group of small faces on a screen. Clapping and cheering are replaced by mime-like clapping and comments in the chat section. But the comments are a bonus, immediate feedback about something an audience member likes about a writer’s piece.

I’m hoping we can return to live open mics soon, but in the meantime, I’ll attend the virtual ones, sometimes to listen and sometimes to read. If you’ve never read at a live open mic because you see your own tigers in the audience, try reading at a virtual one. It’s a good way to ease into the world of public performance. And fortunately, the open mic host doesn’t send Zoom invites to the tigers.

Join us January 13 from 6-7 p.m. for our next Superior Shares, a monthly virtual open mic for local writers to share their work in progress, and for anyone else who appreciates the creative writing process. This event is free to participants and audience, and membership is not required. To register, email writers@lakesuperiorwriters.org.  Please indicate if you would like to read.

Victoria Lynn Smith writes short stories and essays. She is working on a collection of short stories. Her short story “Silent Negotiations” won second place in the 2020 Hal Prize for Fiction. Her story, “Domestic Duplicity,” won first place in the Lake Superior Writers’ 2020 Contest and will published by Better than Starbucks in February 2021.  Her essays and stories have been published in regional journals. Her essays have also appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog, Brevity Blog, and Perfect Duluth Day. Read more at https://writingnearthelake.org/

Rules of Engagement by Felicia Schneiderhan

Last spring I was walking Skyline Parkway (closed to traffic, pedestrians only), six feet from my close friend, Mary Mathews. Mary is a quilt artist. The lines and colors of her work remind me of Miles Davis’s “On the Corner,” or sailboats on a Lake Superior July morning. We walk together often, our topics ranging from family to food to pandemic to working as artists. We often talk about creativity, technique, and perseverance (when we’re not talking about the pandemic or food, that is). That morning, Mary shared with me that her quilting teacher (an internationally-renowned artist who sounds like she would scare the hell out of me) will find a design, and then make 40 quilts with that design, exploring all its nuances.

The idea caught my attention. I wondered what would happen if I tried this with a short story – using a set pattern – instead of having to invent the wheel every time I start something new. 

I had a novel in progress, short stories and essays in progress, and for two months I hadn’t been able to move a single creative muscle . . .

I went home that afternoon and decided to try a new game, “The Rules of Engagement,” to jar me from my pandemic-induced paralysis. I had a novel in progress, short stories and essays in progress, and for two months I hadn’t been able to move a single creative muscle. I came up with the short story equivalent of a quilt pattern. I chose a point of view, time period, motivation, object, word count. The task: write a short story to fit the design in one week. (The rough draft, anyway.) The next week, I’d use the same design to write a completely different story. And so on.

I ended up with three quality stories – one will be published by The Bookends Review this summer, and the other two are making the rounds with editors at literary journals. 

The experiment proved so fulfilling and fun that I wanted to share it with other writers. Lake Superior Writers was willing to give this a try. So this winter, as the dark and cold start to get to us (just a little), we’re going to meet for a month of Thursdays via Zoom to try this game. Every writer will come up with their own design and hone their own stories. Along the way, participants will learn about fiction techniques including point of view, time, structure, and characterization. We’ll also look at revision techniques and publication. By the end of the workshop, everyone will have a quality short story design, two story drafts, some rewritten work, and a network of writers to connect with. 

It’ll be work – but fun work!

Are you game? Come join us!

Felicia’s workshop, “The Rules of Engagement: Writing a short story from beginning to end,” will be held on four consecutive Thursdays: January 14, 21, 28, and February 4 from 6:30-8 p.m. via Zoom.
The cost is $100 for LSW members and $135 for non-members (fee includes a 1-year membership). Participants can add an optional private 30 minute 10-page critique with Felicia for $35. (Critique session will be held via Zoom or telephone.) Register here.

Instructor Felicia Schneiderhan is a Duluth-based award-winning writer and instructor. Her work appears in many literary journals and national magazines, and she hosts “Drawn to Write,” a new show on WDSE about writers and artists.

Cluttered and Trapped in a Strange World: On (Not) Writing During a Pandemic by Zomi Bloom

“I have even forgotten how to long or to want, and I think you must have these in order to write poetry.”

Some people have posted memes on social media that suggest writers could take this pandemic time and turn it into a gold mine opportunity – to hunker down and create great works of art. That has not been my experience, and I bet others feel the same way. Around a socially distanced, outdoor fire pit, my partner asked my novelist friend how writing was going. She responded that she was too distracted.

I have been hopelessly distracted too – by the death toll, the election, the separated kids at the border (still), unemployment (not me, but millions just here in the US), food and rent insecurity (again, not me this time… but millions and millions). There are other whirlwinds in my headspace. I have three children, and over time I learned to write with – not just despite – but with them around. You would think their ages – 12 soon to be 13, 14 going on 26, and 16 soon to be 17 – wouldn’t be a barrier but rather an opening. They no longer need snacks administered by me on an every-other-hour-on-the-hour basis (they can do this themselves). They dress themselves, shower themselves, prepare their own food, find their own entertainment, set themselves up for their own art projects, and in general, spend more time avoiding me than seeking my attention. 

But even so, I’m distracted. Adolescence is no picnic – well, unless that picnic involves intermittent thunderstorms punctuated by alternating sunlight with tornadoes in the forecast. Anyway, they’re not leaving the house for school or sports or dance or band. Although for several months this past fall, C was attending a local choral group’s practices (socially distanced and masked, in one room for 30 minutes max, followed by switching to another room for 30 minutes to air the other out), that activity has ceased again pursuant to the spike in cases and concerned parents. 

I also can’t run. This has nothing to do with the pandemic, but when I can’t get to a gym, it’s a lifeline. This is due to a knee overuse injury which has taken over a year to resolve, with seemingly endless PT sessions, a surgery, a cortisone injection, and so many hip strengthening exercises. I have tried the gym during the times it has been open, but one gym was masked, eerie, too quiet. The other was akin to a frat party, not a smart choice during a pandemic.

I’m ordering all my groceries via app and online delivery.

At the day job, the situation is more stressful than ever. There’s the mask wearing and Zoom meetings and the pressure to carry on as if we weren’t all reeling from a global pandemic.

So even with the reduced kid driving, grocery going, and friends and family visiting, the extra time hasn’t lent itself to improved productivity, insight, or even peace. I find that the best I can do most days is collapse on the couch and zone out watching episode after episode of baking championship shows and old Star Trek TNG. Oh, and re-reading a certain young adult series about a famous wizard and a school called Hogwarts that has comforted me since college.

I forgot about eating swiss roll snack cakes. 

That’s my life.

The poetry seems stuck. I can barely read poetry. I can’t remember any more if I’m a poet or even a fully- fledged human being. Perhaps I have never been a poet and never will be again. If a magnum opus is written during this time period, it will not be by me. I have even forgotten how to long or to want, and I think you must have these in order to write poetry. My nerves are damaged from the onslaught, and I am cluttered and trapped in a strange world now. 

When writing about darkness, I try for a conclusion that provides some sort of balm. If there is no hope to be felt now, let it be that I am not alone, and neither are you, and you don’t have to write your best work right now, and you don’t even have to write at all to still call yourself a writer.

Zomi Bloom is a poet, mother of 3, and weekday number cruncher. She moved to Duluth from the east coast and has been inspired by the landscape and natural treasures of the North Shore. She is the author of the poetry collection Coming to Duluth.

Tales of Title Writing by Victoria Lynn Smith

Writing is tough, but titles aren’t an easy chew either.

Submission guideline: No one- or two-word titles.

First time I’ve seen that one. But I’m a rookie.

The editors desire longer titles to capture the attention of readers. The two stories I want to submit have one- and two-word titles.

I stare at the computer screen trying to think of longer titles. Zip. I close my eyes trying to conjure up longer titles. Zero. I reread my stories, hoping for inspiration. Zilch.

I don’t feel rebellious enough to ignore the guideline. I like my one-word title, but I agree my two-word title has to go. One of my writing friends who read the two-word title (along with its story) advised, “Titles are important. You might want to think about a new one.” Maybe my title composing needs fine-tuning.

Instead, I rationalize my lazy title-writing behavior. Does it really matter? Who remembers titles? We aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, so why judge a story or an essay by its title?

Then I remember my first encounter with Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine shortly after its release. Someone pointed to it in a bookstore and said, “That’s a good book.”

“Oh,” I said. The title didn’t capture my imagination.

A couple of years later, my daughter-in-law said, “I think you’d like this book,” while handing me Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. We’ve similar tastes in books, so I read it and loved it. I’d judged a book by its title. It was time to work on my titles.

Research is a good way to avoid writing, revising, cleaning, so I start with research.

Does it really matter? Who remembers titles? We aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, so why judge a story or an essay by its title?

I learn titles can’t be copyrighted. Nice to know. Still, I decide against recycling titles by literary giants or literary middleweights or any other writer. But what about a quote from Shakespeare? His works are in the public domain. I search Shakespeare+quotes+youth+death. I find a five-word quote and pare it down to four words, change one word and use a synonym for another word to best fit my story. Inspired by The Bard, I’ve doubled the length of my two-word title, and my writing friend says, “The new title ties in better with your story.”

I’m not stoked about changing my one-word title, but I’m game for more research.

I pull an American short story anthology and a recent literary journal off my bookshelf. The two books contain a total of sixty-three short stories and creative nonfiction narratives. Twenty-one of them have one- and two-word titles. Thirty-three percent. Captivating or not, short titles exist. I keep my one-word title. 

I don’t submit either title to the no-one-or-two-word-titles publication. Self-reflection about this behavior is another essay.

***

“About the title,” a friend starts, “wait—let me finish.”

He’s been teaching writing so long he recognizes the look flashing across my face. At the same time, I know that look is on my face. I’m already taking a deep breath and reminding myself about feedback rules: Listen. Don’t defend. Don’t argue.

We’ve met for coffee, but first he’s giving me feedback on a flash essay. The essay is 493 words. The title is twelve words.

“Normally,” my friend says, “lengthy titles are discouraged.”

I didn’t come across a too-long rule in my research, but I know a twelve-word title isn’t the norm. I’d written two titles and torn between them, I weaved them together. 

“But,” he says, “this title works. It mirrors the tone of the essay and sets up the irony revealed at the end.”

Bingo. He understands. Even if he hadn’t, I’d have kept the title. Sometimes a writer has to know when to disregard feedback. But I entertain the idea both of us might be wrong.

The twelve-word title is accepted for publication in a yearly collection of short stories and creative nonfiction.

***

During my research, I find some practical advice for title writing: Engage in a mindless task, think about titles, make a list, then ask your readers which title they like.

Having a story in need of a title, I begin cleaning—my mindless task of choice. (Cleaning and writing have a symbiotic relationship in my world. I take turns doing one to avoid the other.)

After an hour, I’ve five possible titles. I send the story and titles to five different readers, asking them to vote. The first four readers each select a different title. The fifth reader votes for a previously selected title. Without a definitive outcome, I pick the title I like and enter the story in a contest.

Months later I learn my title placed second in the fiction category.

***

I finish my third revision of a flash essay, which has been declined twice. Something in the essay speaks to me, but something’s been missing. Now, I feel the essay says what I want it to say. Out it goes to readers. One reader writes, “powerful ending.” Perhaps I’ve nailed the meaning I wish to convey.

But she began with, “The title is too philosophical.” Yep, she’s right because the essay is about my father, who was a difficult man, and philosophical is where I’m at.

Another reader writes, “This title is perfect.”

I’m not changing the title, so I embrace the second opinion.

I spend the afternoon submitting the title to publications featuring flash essays. Maybe this time.

***

Epilogue

Writing is tough, but titles aren’t an easy chew either. I write short titles and long titles. I write titles I love and titles I tolerate. Feedback is contradictory.

This essay is on its third title.

And the job I’d least like to have? Writing titles or captions.

Victoria Lynn Smith writes short stories, essays, and articles. She is working on a collection of short stories. Her short story “Silent Negotiations” won second place in the 2020 Hal Prize for Fiction Her story, “Domestic Duplicity,” won first place in the Lake Superior Writers’ 2020 Contest for short-short fiction. She recently had an essay and several stories published in three regional journals. Her essays have also appeared on the following blogs: Lake Superior Writers, Brevity, and Perfect Duluth Day. When she writes, her two standard poodles keep her company. They enjoy the soft clicks of the keyboard keeping rhythm with the classical music. Blog: https://writingnearthelake.org/ 

Here I Go Again by Molly Hoeg

My forever project.  That’s what I’m now calling the work that has consumed the last four years of my life.  What was I thinking when I started out to write a book, expecting that it was “The Year of my Book?”  Naive as I was, I poured my heart and soul into the stories I wrote for the next year.  And the year after that.  Tales derived from the thousands of miles that my husband and I covered on our bicycle tours, along with the joys and the conflicts that accompanied them.

I supplemented my work with taking writing classes, reading books about craft, joining Lake Superior Writers, and networking with other writers.  I grew as a writer, but knew it wasn’t enough.  I decided to engage a writing coach, to get first-hand personal input on my efforts to write a book.  Even as I packaged up my work to send to her, I knew what I had was just “a pile of content.”  I relied on her to steer me through shaping it into a book.  I spent the next six months working with her, and she delivered.

It has taken me another two years to put those learnings into practice.  To whittle down my stories and turn them into a cohesive tale.  One that goes well beyond pushing the pedals of my bike and explores the inner me that journeys through life.  I’ve learned that the bicycle is the vehicle, not the real focus.

Less than half of what I first wrote remains in this new version.  But so much more is woven in between those pages.  I’ve delved into my past, dug into my innermost desires, scrutinized my motives and exposed my biggest failure.  There were times when writing felt like therapy sessions.  But I could see how it all began to weave together.  I could feel it working.  Maybe.

I feel as though I’ve taken it as far as I can on my own.  I could spend months tweaking and fine tuning, but it would all be for naught if I’m not on the right track.  I’m yearning for that professional guidance and tutoring specific to my writing, to my project. I’m ready for another check-in with my coach.

As I prepared for the October start to our next engagement, I looked back on the notes I sent her the first time around.  Specifically, I read through an exercise focused on Why am I Writing this Book?  I was amazed to find that my original reasons no longer hold true.  My purpose has changed.  The themes have shifted.  The points I want to make are vastly different.  I think it’s progress.  I hope she thinks so too.

Yesterday I took my document to the printer and came home with 320 double-spaced pages.  Nearly the same size as last time, but not at all the same inside.  This time I’m willing to call it a manuscript.

I’m both eager and nervous to get my coach’s reaction to the transformation.  I already know she will be encouraging.  But I have no illusions that I’m close to done.  I trust her to guide me from here and teach me the techniques and nuances that will take this to the next level.

My coach is still the only person besides me who has read this volume.  I’ll keep it that way until I’m good and ready, until it’s good and ready.  I know I still have plenty of work to do.  So here I go again.  Coaching round 2.

Molly Brewer Hoeg is a writer from Duluth, Minnesota whose memoirs and essays often focus on being active in the outdoors.  She is a regular contributor to regional and national magazines including Lake Superior Magazine and Adventure Cyclist Magazine. She is currently is working on a book exploring the ups and downs of her life while bicycle touring with her husband. You can read about her adventures on her blog, Superior Footprints, https://superiorfootprints.org/.

Inspired by an Axe Murder, A Skeleton in the Closet Brought Out the Writer in Me by Christine Marcotte

When I learned about the 1897 unsolved ax murder of my third great-grandfather Thomas Boxell and his second wife, Lydia, I was hooked. I hadn’t written anything creatively since junior high, but it was clear to me that a book needed to be written about the accused family members.  That was the beginning of my writing. 

Shortly after my retirement ten years ago, I attended a birthday celebration of a great-aunt.  I was spellbound when an elderly second cousin regaled me with the story that a common ancestor, a great-grandfather of varying degrees, had been murdered. He invited me to read what his mother had written about the event, and I made plans to visit a few weeks later.  As with any undertaking, I love research and planning.  The Boxell Murders were the focus of my extra time for two years and led me to the conclusion that I needed to tell this story.  Nine years after the birthday party, the manuscript What Amelia Knows was completed. My emergence as a writer occurred during that time.

When I decided a book needed to be written, I had hundreds of newspaper articles and court documents.  I had a 150-page chronology that covered the time from the murders in May 1897 through the end of the trial in July 1899, and a photograph of the entire Boxell family, numbering nearly 50, standing in front of their home in Howard Lake, Minnesota, a year and a half before the murder.  I had plenty of facts, but I knew very little about the family.

I learned the Boxell’s had 47 third-generation descendants who were still living and in their eighties and nineties.  Of course, none had been born at the time of the murders, but most of their parents were. I decided I needed to visit some of them and learn what I could about the Boxell family, and maybe a little more about the murders. With a grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, I interviewed over a dozen living in Minnesota.  I embarked on several road-trips and had delightful visits. Some were great-aunt and great-uncles, but most were second or third cousins, who became instant friends.  Collectively they knew about as much about the murders as would fit in a teacup, but I did understand the Boxell family a bit better.  

There were some factions that believed the murder had been committed by family and others that were vehement that they were not responsible.  More than half of the original Boxell family moved from the county in which they were raised.  A handful settled near Randall, in Morrison County, and another group moved to Polk County, Wisconsin. Some division continued through the generations, though many cousins had no idea they stemmed from a murder.

One of the many surprises during my visits with the Boxell cousins was this photograph taken in front of the Boxell home on Christmas Day 1895. The names are written on the back, and all of the ‘characters’ except the new wife of the patriarch are pictured.

Fear of something nefarious happening lasted generations with varying degrees of caution.  Most everyone kept their doors locked at night and several made sure there was always a weapon of some sort near the bed.  When Catherine (Boxell) and George Taylor built a new brick house, Catherine insisted there was no door installed on the side facing the road! 

Armed with a better understanding of my ancestors, I was ready to write. I took an online class through the Loft, Your Book Starts Here, facilitated by author Mary Carroll Moore.  I was thrilled by everyone’s feedback but realized I had a long way to go before writing this book.  One looming question was whether it should be fiction or nonfiction. Another was that I honestly doubted my ability to write. I needed a way to test the waters, so I asked the local paper if I could write a weekly column.  The editor said yes but cautioned she could only pay me $20 an article. So, in September 2014, “Reminisce” debuted, and the book project was temporarily filed away.  Eventually, I developed my voice, had a following, and feedback once in a while.  Feeling optimistic, I joined an online writing program, Writers Village University.  Since January 2015, I have taken many courses and made friends from around the world.  

With 187 columns to my credit, I was ready to write about the murder.  It would be historical fiction and begin with the arrest of the man they had the most evidence against.  I started on an extensive outline in July 2018 and had the first draft completed by December 2018. A grant from the ARAC, allowed me to start working with a professional editor in June 2019. I finished revisions and entered The Many Voices Project sponsored by the New Rivers Press. With a prize of a publishing contract, I submitted to six additional contests. There was no rush for me to publish, so I have spent the year working on my other writing projects. I am still waiting to hear from the three with the most potential. One is for historical fiction, one is a crime novel, and one is for a book written by a woman over the age of 40.

Of course, once I found that skeleton, I had to keep looking.  One of my Boxell in-laws spent time as an inmate in the St. Peter and Fergus Falls State hospitals. His story is part of my Blurred Visions Short story collection, a work in progress. The linked stories (connected by a common thread) are based on the lives of actual patients in the Fergus Falls hospital at the turn of the 20th century.

After Christine Marcotte retired, she attended a birthday party for a great-aunt and learned about an ancestor who was murdered in 1897. Intrigued, she researched and wrote a historical fiction novel based on the murder. She also writes short stories and a newspaper column about historical events in Itasca County.

The Accidental Memoirist by Felicia Schneiderhan

“Writing memoir gives us a new understanding of events that have happened, and helps us to make sense of our lives in completely new ways – ways we can’t see just thinking or talking about it.”

A while back, my editor at a Chicago newspaper assigned me a story about the Chicago White Sox. I knew jack about baseball, even less about how to conduct an interview with Major League players. But I took the assignment because I liked the challenge. (This same editor assigned me a story about flying an airplane for the first time – my photographer barely survived the stress.) The newspaper article I wrote was pretty weak; the story of how I got the story was a lot more interesting (like cornering Paul Konerko on a couch). I wrote that personal essay (a.k.a. memoir) and it landed in the literary journal Sport Literature.

I was hooked. My career as an accidental memoirist has led to articles in national magazines, essays in literary journals, and my full-length book, Newlyweds Afloat.

Maybe you, too, are an Accidental Memoirist. Or maybe you’ve had the push to write memoir, but you are doing your best to ignore it (let’s call you the Reluctant Memoirist).

Let me just tell you why you may want to write memoir. Memoir is powerful for us as writers; we often don’t know our story until we write it. Writing memoir gives us a new understanding of events that have happened, and helps us to make sense of our lives in completely new ways – ways we can’t see just thinking or talking about it.

What I’m saying is, memoir writing is super cool.

This summer I developed a workshop, Gymnastics for Memoir Writers, for the Midwest Writing Center  (a phenomenal organization with amazing support and opportunities for writers). The online workshop went so well that I wanted to offer it again. Lake Superior Writers is the host and sponsor for this fall’s workshop.

A lot of us are struggling with isolation. Our regular writing routines are in shambles. We’re trying to get our footing as writers, as creative people, in this new world. Here’s one way to do that. 

So:

If you’ve always wanted to write memoir…

If you’ve written half a memoir…

If you’ve written a lot of memoir…

Or if you’ve never considered writing memoir until right now…

Gymnastics for Memoir Writers could be just what you need to get going. Or at least do something fun on Thursday nights when it’s dark and cold outside.

Instructor Felicia Schneiderhan is a Duluth-based award-winning writer and instructor. Her work appears in many literary journals and national magazines, and she hosts “Drawn to Write,” a new show on WDSE about writers and artists.

Writing (or Not Writing) and Daycare for Grandkids

Writing saves me from feeling like a clunker that’s been dropped into a car crusher, being pushed into itself on all sides.

The synapses in my brain zing snarky impulses from neuron to neuron, causing my mind to fire on all cylinders with crankiness and snarl, feed me serotonin.

I have to write because that’s what the old gray mass wants. At this point, my brain is past accepting substitutes—walking, chocolate, reading, or cleaning won’t short-circuit the cranky electrical impulses as my brain begs, write, you know you want to; write, you know you need to; just bloody hell write.

***

I’m retired and days should be my own, but my grandkids need daycare, and being the only available option, I’ve been babysitting now for two-and-a-half months.

Most weekdays my four grandkids fill the house with the discordant sound of a young orchestra struggling to play on key and in time. I love them, but by the end of the day, their continuous, overlapping voices and sounds of play erode my energy, leaving my mind worn down like a piece of driftwood partly buried in sand.

Writing saves me from feeling like a clunker that’s been dropped into a car crusher, being pushed into itself on all sides. It’s been days since I’ve attempted any writing, and the front and rear bumpers of my soul are almost rubbing together.

Each morning I’ve grand plans to write after my grandkids go home. But after they leave, I descend into a stuffed chair, stretch my legs over its ottoman, and muster up what I need to get through the few hours I’ve left before going to bed. Writing rarely makes the cut.

My weekends are grandchild-free, but I’m spending them working on a sizeable editing job for a client. The work is stimulating, and the client’s writing is enjoyable, but it’s not the same as doing my own writing.

Because I’ve the reserves for escapism but not the stamina to write, I hide from writing, pretending I’m being productive by reading a novel for my book club, embroidering dishtowels for friends, and watching British police dramas with tortured detectives, hence phrases like bloody hell slinking into my speech. (In one police drama, the storyline featured a detective winning third place in a prestigious writing contest. It was the character’s last episode, and with no explanation for his exit, I’m assuming he left the force to pursue a rewarding writing career. I decided the show was mocking me. But I still watch it.)

***

Today, mercifully, my 22-month-old grandson falls asleep on the daily car ride my grandkids and I take after lunch. I carry him into the house and place him on the couch. He curls up like an armadillo and slips back into a deep slumber. If he follows his routine, he’ll sleep about two hours. His older siblings migrate to the rec room to play with a marble run and building blocks. An enticing silence replaces the din of chatter, constant questions, and chirps of “Nana.”

I brush aside plans to catch up on housework and slip into my writing hole. I ease in by organizing a few items on my desk. Next, I slide a little deeper by doing some research for an article I’m writing. Finally, I burrow in and start writing this essay about how hard it is to write after caring for grandkids all day.

***

A friend of mine often tells me I’m doing an important job (the babysitting not the writing). I agree with her that caring for children is important, but I don’t say that for me, it’s not enough.

Writing isn’t my hobby, but it’s not my job either. I started writing after I retired, and I grapple with its place in my life, but if I ignore writing, it picks and prods at me. If I don’t write, writing finds me, invading my thoughts, diverting them from the world around me. I start composing in my head and later find I’ve driven to the end of my day, but don’t remember the scenery along the way.

***

After more than two hours at my desk, except for quick breaks to check on my grandkids, my brain is swimming in a pool of serotonin. So, when my sleeping grandson awakes calling, “Nana,” I know I can handle whatever he tosses at me for the afternoon. We meet halfway between the living room and family room. He reaches up for me and I reach down for him, scooping him up in a big hug.

At six o’clock my son picks up his children, and I write for another half-hour, but I’m tired because it’s been a ten-hour day. I take a break to eat, but I don’t want to leave my writing world, so when I join my husband in the family room where he’s watching TV, I read a book about writing essays. The book, a bit academic, isn’t what I thought it would be, but the writer’s prose is wonderful and I find myself lulled by the rhythm of his sentences, enjoying his contemplations about essays. I’ve entered a Zen-like calm. It’s the best I’ve felt in days.

Even if it’s just in snippets of time, I resolve to write more, to read more about the craft of writing, and to sign up for writing classes. If I don’t, my brain will hunt me down, nip at my heels, and bite me in the behind.

And, having started writing after retirement, behind is what I feel. At sixty-one, I don’t see unending days and years stretching ahead of me, like I did when I was twenty and thirty. It’s harder to say, I’ll write when life settles down, because that doesn’t happen. Life pushes in, but with keyboard at fingertips, I need to push back.

Victoria Lynn Smith writes short stories, essays, and articles. She is working on a collection of short stories. Her story, “Domestic Duplicity,” won first place in the Lake Superior Writers’ 2020 Contest for short-short fiction. She recently had an essay and several stories published in three regional journals. Her essays have also appeared on the following blogs: Lake Superior Writers, Brevity, and Perfect Duluth Day. When she writes, her two standard poodles keep her company. They enjoy the soft clicks of the keyboard keeping rhythm with the classical music.

Procrastination as a Tool by Brian Matuszak

“I am at my most creative, my most prolific, my most full of wonderfulness when there isn’t any time left to screw around. When it has to be done, I get it done. And more often than not, I get it done well.”

Today I was going to talk about procrastination, but I figured that could wait.* 

All seriousness aside, procrastination is a worthwhile topic for writers to think about…eventually.** How many of us put off writing because the ink’s low in the printer? Or the kitten’s stuck in the printer? Or you have to purchase a new printer? Around my house, the Procrastination List of Topics is long and varied, but I’m here to let you in a little secret:  

That’s not entirely bad.  

Some of my best work has been created in the proverbial (and literal) Last Minute. Nothing transforms a Walter White of an idea into a Heisenberg of creative output faster than when there’s absolutely no other option besides getting it done. Deadlines are a wonderful thing. And I know them intimately because I don’t bother embracing them until they’re right in my face. 

I recall my freshmen year in college. I was a newly scrubbed high school graduate, ready to take on the world with energy, passion, and hair. We had an assignment in Freshman English to write an essay about an embarrassing moment. Being the action postponer I had grown up to be, I dove right in to not doing it. 

Not that I didn’t *think* about it, and that’s crucial to the Master Put-Offer-Of-Things. You must plop the main idea into the brain oven and let it simmer. Consider possible topics, themes, ideas, turns of phrase…BUT DON’T WRITE ANY OF THEM DOWN! That’s called Working On It, which will get you kicked out of the Procrastination Club, as soon as we feel like looking up the bylaws. 

Eventually, I settled on the horrifyingly stupid and humiliating story of me hauling an automatic transmission around downtown Duluth in the back of my car, getting a flat tire, then not being able to jack up my car because of the weight of the 800-pound greasy piece of scrap metal lodged in my backseat. Oh, and I was on a first date at the time. (Yes, smarty pants, I did get a second date, which proves that sweat is charming to some people.) 

Now it came time to put off the writing of the assignment. 

I should point out that in high school, I had a mother who always checked on my homework. What was the assignment? When was it due? WHY AREN’T YOU WORKING ON IT RIGHT NOW? Through the prism of time, it’s easy to see that Mom’s nagging was essential for my high school success. But then I graduated, moved out of the house, and Procrastination said “Hey, college man. Let’s grab some lukewarm PBR and hang.” 

So when did I finally compose this particular English essay? The hour before it was due. In the student lounge. Written out in longhand in my notebook. With minutes to spare, I set my still-smoking essay free from the spiral prison, neatly clipped all the jagged paper edges off, slapped my name on it and handed it in. 

Ladies and gentlemen, not only did I get an A, the teacher read it out loud to the entire class as an example of how a personal essay should be written. Yes, I WAS REWARDED FOR MY DRAGGING FEET! The dye was set. The concrete poured. My destiny fulfilled. That day, I learned that I am at my most creative, my most prolific, my most full of wonderfulness when there isn’t any time left to screw around. When it has to be done, I get it done. And more often than not, I get it done well. 

So embrace your inner Goof Off Guy/Gal/Gang. See if it works for you to put something creative off until the last possible second. When there’s no time left for second-guessing yourself, you might just achieve some incredible writing. Get out of your own way and shine. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another essay due in twenty minutes. Better get crackin’.*** 

*Comedy professional. Do not attempt at home. 

**Again, comedy professional. Please stop trying to put this into your writing. You’re only hurting yourself. 

***It’s called the Comedy Rule of Three. Look it up. 

Brian Matuszak is a local writer/actor/director/producer, co-founder of Rubber Chicken Theater, and has been practicing the fine art of procrastination since birth. In fact, he didn’t finish this bio until you started reading it.

Log It! by Eric Chandler

Having a submissions tracker is aspirational . . .  it shows you’re creating enough “content” that you need to manage it. That you are serious about finding readers. The empty lines in the spreadsheet are almost like a coach, motivating you to send your work into the world.

The internet gods attacked two of my logs this year. Those crimes spurred me to create two new logs that help me as a writer. So buckle in and get helped, if you want. 

Log

The First Attack. I have a software program called The Athlete’s Diary. It’s a daily log of my exercise. I have 37 years of daily workouts and races in that data base. I’ve logged around 40 thousand miles of running, cross-country skiing, cycling, hiking, paddling, and rollerskiing. I’m on my second lap around the earth. This log is my life’s work. I’m not kidding.

Recently, I updated my computer to the latest operating system. I was shocked when my Athlete’s Diary didn’t work anymore. I “sucked up some seat cushion,” as they say in the flying biz when you get scared. I wrote the company and they said, “Yeah, we aren’t supporting the desktop version anymore.” The application still works on my phone, thank goodness. For a second, I thought I lost my magnum opus

The Second Attack. I subscribed to Writer’s Market online for about 20 years. When I was new to submitting work, it helped me find new markets. Eventually, I subscribed just for the submissions tracker. It was an online database that kept track of where you sent your work. I had 20 years of submissions in that database. Since I travel for my day job, it was good because I could access it anywhere. One day, I went to Writer’s Market, and the website was gone. I emailed them and they said, “Yeah, we’re not doing that anymore.” I suggested that maybe they could’ve given me a heads up BEFORE FLUSHING TWENTY YEARS DOWN THE TOILET. Luckily, I saved a backup record. It was about six months out of date, but I was able to cobble together a new log. Just 541 different submission attempts I made over 20 years. No big deal. 

The Two New Logs. So, the two bad things happened: my workout tracking software was dumbed down and my submissions tracker was eliminated completely. Two new good things came from it. I have a new way of tracking submissions and a new way of logging my writing time. 

Submissions Tracker Sample

The First New Log. First, my new submissions tracker. It’s a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. I’ve included a sample picture and a blank spreadsheet that you’re welcome to have. It’s the backup I made of the Writer’s Market website. This whole experience made me ask this: Why track submissions? I track my submissions for three reasons: Writing needs readers, having a submissions tracker saves time, and it helps me act like a professional. (“Act like one”; ahem)

Writing needs readers. I like the process of writing. I learn about myself, others, and the world through writing. But I also believe that writing isn’t actualized until a reader absorbs it. It hasn’t reached its full potential until somebody reads the words you wrote. Having a submissions tracker is aspirational. Gee, you must have work to track. It shows you’re creating enough “content” that you need to manage it. That you are serious about finding readers. The empty lines in the spreadsheet are almost like a coach, motivating you to send your work into the world.

A submissions tracker saves time. I don’t enjoy the submissions process. Especially when you’re trying to break into a new market. You have to spell the editor’s name right. You have to put the manuscript in the correct format. Do I include my stupid address on the first page or not? Do they want a bio? Tedious, boring, and exhausting. The tracker helps me cut down on this time. I can see that I’ve submitted to someone before and go update that previously rejected cover letter. I’ll already know what publications accept simultaneous submissions or previously published work. It’s easy to find when I last submitted to a certain magazine. Which publications I have a better success rate with. There’s no avoiding some legwork when submitting to a new market. But with the tracker, I don’t reinvent the wheel each time. I like having readers. I don’t like spending time on clerical work to find them. 

A submissions tracker helps me act like a professional. It’s a lifelong process to become a “serious writer,” especially if you’re a slow learner like me. My new Excel submissions tracker has spurred me to submit more often. I can still get to it everywhere since I save it on Dropbox, one of many file-sharing options you can use. When I submit simultaneously and something is accepted, I can easily find the other places where I submitted and notify them. 

The biggest driver on my spreadsheet is the “Next Action Date” along with the adjacent “Next Action Description.” Sorting my spreadsheet by this date lets me see ALL the things I have in the hopper and the real tasks that are next. When I first submit a piece, if they specify how long they want to be left alone or when they’ll announce acceptances, I put that as the next action date. I don’t have to keep looking up when to follow-up and I don’t pester a busy editor. I use the “Notes” section freely, especially to highlight why the “Next Action Date” exists. If a piece gets accepted, I put the expected publication date in that column, so I can share it and bask in glory. After it’s published, I put a date sometime in the future so I can make sure I got paid or a contributor copy. “Paid?” goes in the description column. When a piece gets rejected, I leave the current date there, but add a “resubmit” comment until I submit the piece somewhere else. That way the resubmitting task stays higher in the pile. Professionals are detail oriented, punctual, disciplined, and committed to finding readers. But like Vonnegut says, we are what we pretend to be. The submissions tracker helps me pretend, because I’m no pro.

Writing Time Sheet SampleThe Second New Thing. So, we covered the submissions tracker and my three reasons for having one. Now, the second new outcome: my writing time sheet. It’s inspired by my Athlete’s Diary, which acts like a minimalist journal. My time sheet is simple, too. It’s another Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and I included an example. It’s yet another way to show I’m a “serious writer.” 

I log the date, how many hours I worked, and what I did. I don’t have obsessive-compulsive disorder, but I have those tendencies. I tried to weaponize my OCD before by tracking my writing word count. But there is more to writing than word count. Editing my work is vital, but there’s no word count for that. Researching and interviewing people for articles takes time, but has no word count. For me, logging my time at work lends the whole enterprise more meaning. The fact is, I like logging things. So, this writing time sheet is also a motivational tool, like the submissions tracker. If I get to log it, I’m more likely to do all the work that writing entails. 

I’m new at this time log. It might help me to determine what my time is worth. What things are effective as a writer vs. things that waste my time. It’s like the old Annie Dillard quote: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” In a typical year, I fly airplanes for about 600 hours. In a good year, I ski/run/bike/hike for 300 hours. For the first time in 20 years of writing for publication, I know my writing time. If I stay on pace, I’ll put in 400 hours on writing this year. I’m surprised that it’s up with my other “serious” pursuits. And I also learned why I’m a little soft around the middle. I need more mileage to match the sedentary “butt-in-chair” time.

Evil forces attacked two of my logs. I came up with two new logs as a result. And I share this with you dear reader, because maybe it will help you take this solitary writing work to the next level. Also, I really like Ren & Stimpy, so I got to include a picture of the famous log song cartoon. Keep writing!

Eric Chandler is the author of Hugging This Rock: Poems of Earth & Sky, Love & War (Middle West Press, 2017). His writing appeared in Northern Wilds, Grey Sparrow Journal, The Talking Stick, Columbia Journal, The War Horse, Consequence Magazine, Sleet Magazine, The Wrath-Bearing Tree, O-Dark-Thirty, and The Deadly Writers Patrol. Eric cross-country skis as fast as he can in Duluth, Minnesota. Check out his website: Shmotown