How to be a Writer in the E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity!

How_to_be_a_writer

I read How to be a Writer in the E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity! < http://howtotellagreatstory.com/2012/10/how-to-be-a-writer-in-the-e-age-and-keep-your-e-sanity-by-catherine-ryan-hyde-and-anne-r-allen/> by Catherine Ryan Hyde and Anne R. Allen last year and I’m thrilled to see what their first updated version will be like, to be released in e-book form soon. The title of their book is right on the money.

I had the wonderful opportunity to interview both ladies on their collaboration on this project, and their warmth and generosity shines. They will also teach a workshop on the subject: < http://digitalageauthors.com/> The Tech Savvy Author, with local radio personality Dave Congalton, set for March 2nd in San Luis Obispo. 

Interview by Joanna Celeste

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Catherine Ryan Hyde

What drives you to write?

That’s a bit hard to quantify. There’s a special feeling that goes with one’s “calling” in the world. It’s not easy to put words to it, but I know it when I feel it. It feels like a sense that I’m more sane, more “me,” when I’m doing the work. I think at the heart of things writing is a type of communication. Under the surface of how it feels at the time, I probably write to feel more a part of things, to feel I’m not on my own little planet all alone.

That captures it perfectly. What inspired you to collaborate with Anne R. Allen on How to be a Writer in an E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity?

I’d been wanting to do a nonfiction book for writers for many years. I felt my struggles and my rejections had given me stories to tell, stories that might help other writers take heart. But then the industry began to change so fast. And because I had an agent and a publisher, I realized I was out of touch with the experience of the modern struggling writer. I knew the feelings, and the courage needed, but the details had changed. So Anne’s and my collaboration was made in heaven, I think, because she is so on the cutting edge of the rapid changes in our industry. I felt that our two perspectives would come together to create a complete package.

It certainly felt complete. I enjoyed your sections on editing. How has your experience as a professional editor shaped you as a writer?

I think it’s made me very detail-oriented, and very aware of how much grammar, punctuation, and even neatness count. It’s also helped me put rejection into perspective, because I know some of the reasons a writer’s work is rejected. They are often far less a reflection on the quality of the work than we tend to imagine.

Yes, sometimes the best way to learn is to be in someone else’s shoes. You’re also a teacher—you’ve taught at various workshops and conferences. What was the most rewarding aspect of that experience?

All of teaching feels rewarding to me. Which is good, because if the constant struggle of making a living in publishing is ever too much for me, teaching gives me a soft place to land. I think the best part is when I’m told—or when I can see—that a student has left my workshop more inspired, with a new sense of enthusiasm toward his or her own work.

What did you find most students struggling with?

Story arc—the idea that something needs to happen, that characters need to evolve, that the end must carry that comfortable sense of resolution. Some have trouble with character depth. It pays to know yourself deeply, because it’s unlikely your characters will be deeper than you are. And then on a smaller scale, I see people struggle with the finer points of grammar and punctuation. We all went to school, but many of us did not do so recently, and what we haven’t used in the meantime we lose. So it’s essential that writing students brush up on their English.

Something we’re always learning, it seems. Do you recommend any books on that subject?

I’m a big fan of The New Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager and the Doomed by Elizabeth Gordon. You can tell by the title that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. A sense of humor is helpful when reviewing punctuation. The book has been around since I was brushing up, but is still available in paperback. I also like Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss for the same reason.

You shared many rejection stories with us, and I loved your section about defining success. Could you share with us some stories of your recent successes? You’ve just published a new book The Long, Steep Path: Everyday Inspiration from the Author of Pay It Forward and over the last couple of years have published several books, including Jumpstart the World, When You Were Older, Don’t Let Me Go, When I Found You, and Second Hand Heart.

The biggest two successes have been the US indie editions of When I Found You and Don’t Let Me Go.

When I Found You went on a 5-day free promotion last March. Over 81,000 people downloaded it in those 5 days. After the promotion it rose to #12 in Kindle paid. The combination of the free downloads and subsequent sales gave it a popularity ranking of #3 in the Kindle Store, #5 on Amazon as a whole. For a couple of days it was hovering between two Hunger Games books on the Kindle home page. Amazon Publishing took notice, and will bring it out this March under the Amazon Encore imprint.

Congratulations!

Later we put Don’t Let Me Go on a 2-day promo, and over 60,000 copies were downloaded in just that short time. It didn’t go as high in Kindle Paid as When I Found You. I think its top number was #34. But its numbers have stayed high longer, so we have actually sold more copies of Don’t Let Me Go. And, by the way, Don’t Let Me Go has broken my record for both quality and quantity of Amazon reader reviews. The previous record holder was Pay It Forward, with 202 reviews accumulated since late 1999, 126 of which are 5-star. Don’t Let Me Go has garnered 232 just since June, 176 of which are 5-star.

So that feels like a great outcome to me, especially since these are indie editions.

Awesome! How do you manage the organization of the myriad of activities required to be a successful writer in this E-age?

I’m not sure organization is the right word for it, at least in my case. I think with networking and promotion, as with the work itself, I tend to run on inspiration. Sometimes I get more done than other times, but it works out in the end. Then people say I’m disciplined, which never fails to make me laugh. Fortunately, just as I love the communication of writing a story or novel, I also love the communication of daily social networking. So it tends to drive itself, which is good. Because, like most writers, I do have two left brains.

Your advice on marketing and social media is extensive in How to be a Writer in an E Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity! What would you say is the essence of any successful marketing campaign?

Human relationships. People buy books by authors they feel they know. So it’s always about making connections with readers. Asking a bunch of relative strangers to buy your books in one non-personalized posting has never enjoyed much success.

You keep in touch with people all over the world, and you’ve been published in the U.S. and the U.K. What are the primary differences between working here and across the pond?

At first I thought UK readers were more receptive to literary fiction, but then those same novels took off here in the U.S. as well. So now I think reader tastes are more or less the same on both sides of the pond. For a time the biggest difference was that the US industry was falling apart at the seams, so I was quite dependent on the more intact UK market for my income. Now the US market is stabilizing and many of the troubles we’ve just come through are hitting over there. It’s been an interesting—albeit troubling—process to watch.

That’s neat that you’ve had such a range of experience with various publishing houses, and also with different avenues of publication–from indie presses to working with the Big Six. Please share with us what the publication process has been like for How to Be a Writer in the E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity.

At this point I’m what the newly-changed industry calls a hybrid author. I have traditionally published books and independently published books. And in How to be a Writer in the E-Age…And Keep Your E-Sanity! I have a book published under the third model, the new breed of small publisher. The difference for me is that I do far less work than I do for the indie books, yet I get more control than I did with traditional publishers. There was quite a lot of checking and proofing of the various drafts of the formatted work, and of course an author always has to promote, but on the whole it’s been an easy path for this book. As publishing paths go.

Your book is full of useful advice for writers (new, seasoned, and every shade between). If there was one thing that you wish you had known when you had just started out as a writer, what would that be?

I wish I’d know that rejection didn’t mean what I thought it did—that it didn’t mean my work wasn’t good, or even necessarily that the editor who rejected it thought it wasn’t. I wish I’d known that rejection didn’t mean that the same editor wouldn’t publish another of my stories or novels, or, in one extreme example, even the same one. Rejection is never easy, but if I’d known it was often not a true reflection of the work, I might have saved myself a lot of grief. Which is why I share so much about rejection in the book.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

Just that writers need to stick together. It’s a very tough business. People tell you to thicken your skin. I’m not saying it’s bad advice. But sometimes you will need to tend your own wounds. This is what Anne and I hoped to achieve with How to be a Writer in an E Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity! We really do want to help other writers feel more supported, more balanced. More sane.

That about sums up how I felt after reading it, so thank you.

[For more information, visit Catherine <online> http://crhyde.squarespace.com/.%5D

Anne R. Allen

 How to Be a Writer in the E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity! covers many areas from getting started, learning to determine when one is a “real writer”, rejection, working with editors and agents, navigating social media, working within critique groups and making the most out of the various types of feedback, maximizing the value of writer’s conferences, the protocol for handling cyber bullies and trolls, querying, defining one’s genre, learning to self-edit,  overcoming depression, writer’s block and self-doubt, and several aspects of getting published, including knowing when to go traditional or self-publish, and what to expect after publication (which was quite enlightening). How did you divvy up the sections between you and Catherine?

It happened kind of organically. We have different fields of expertise–I’ve been with small presses and Catherine has experience with the Big Six and self-publishing, so things fell into place very easily. I don’t remember having to decide. Things just happened.

The pacing of the book is perfect, balanced between your voices. How did the writing process go?

We got together about once a month to outline and plan what we wanted to say, then wrote the pieces and emailed them back and forth. Once we met at my house, but Catherine’s a vegan, and a great cook, so mostly we met at her house and brainstormed over a great vegan meal she prepared. She lives about a 45 minute drive up the coast from my house—a gorgeous drive.

No wonder the overall tone of the book is so warm, what a great atmosphere to work in!

As part of the initial price for the e-book, you offer free updates every six months, to ensure the guidance remains current. Your first update is set to be published this week. What is your process for updating the book?

I perused all my entries in the book and saw some needed to be completely re-done. That took some research. But for most I just had to tweak a few things. We kept some of the references to the “Big Six” publishing companies, although I explained they’re now the Big Five-or-maybe-Four-and-a-half.

How does this work for those who purchase the paperback; do they get access to the updates in a way, either by supplemental pages emailed to them or by receiving a discount on the e-book?

No. Our publisher really couldn’t afford to do that. It’s just the e-book that has free updates.

That’s an amazing deal for a $2.99 e-book.

As an author known for your comedic mysteries (The Camilla Randall series) and your comic thriller (Food of Love), I welcomed your treatment of the various subjects of writing in How to Be a Writer in the E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity! What is the value of humor in writing?

I’ve always loved books that made me laugh. I loved reading P.G. Wodehouse  and Angela Thirkell when I was in high school—my parents had a great collection of British humorists. And I loved Kurt Vonnegut, who has dark humor in all his books.  As different as they are, I think they all influenced my writing.

Also, I was in the theater for many years and I learned how to engage an audience by making them laugh, and I transferred it to my writing. I didn’t do it consciously, but the humor always creeps in. 

I enjoy the humorous touches in your posts. Your blog http://annerallen.blogspot.com/ was named finalist for “best publishing industry blog” by the Association of American Publishers and one of the “Top 50 Blogs for Authors” by TribalNation.com, and your section on blogging was extensive in the book. What would you say is the essence of a successful blog?

Every successful publishing blog is successful in a different way. Joe Konrath’s can be hard-hitting and no-B.S. Kristen Lamb’s is chatty and girly and funny. Chuck Wendig’s is R-rated and raunchy. But they have three things in common: 1) They’re “you” oriented instead of “me” oriented.  2) They give great information. 3) They have strong, honest personal voices. I think those are the most important elements of a great blog.

How did you arrange for Ruth Harris to co-blog with you?

She made long comments on my blog a lot—and they were so useful and insightful. I told her she needed to have her own blog and kept hammering her about how we all needed her expertise. (How many people have been on the NYT bestseller list AND edited for a Big Six publisher?) But she didn’t want to make the time commitment. So I asked her if she’d like to be a regular guest on my blog. She jumped right in.

She’s finally started her own blog< http://ruthharrisblog.blogspot.com/>—mostly with links that make great writing prompts, but she’s branching out with some great new features, like “The Story Behind the Story” guest posts from authors talking about what prompted them to write their novels. I think that’s going to be a lot of fun.

I will have to check that out. What about writing do you most enjoy?

The sheer act of creation. When the kernel of an idea starts sprouting into characters and scenes and the people come to life on the page and start doing things I don’t expect. I never know where a book is going to go and I love watching the whole thing unfold.

I appreciated your insight into the subject of depression and creativity. You covered the importance of remaining centered, but what are the ways you personally find balance?

I’m not always good at that. But I try to walk every day and take time to meditate and be in my body instead of living in my head all the time. I love to go out and listen to music and dance. I love roots and world music. We live in a great area for it.

Sounds lovely. What is your favorite motto?

“Everything in moderation. Including moderation.”

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I’m so grateful to Catherine for partnering with me on this book. I was an out-of-print writer without much of a future when we first came up with the idea of a book. She took a chance by linking her name with a relatively unknown author. Since then, I’ve got a publisher who now has published six of my mysteries. If I was going to pick a moment when my career started to come back to life, I’d say it was that lunch when we came up with the idea of a book on “the care and feeding of the writer’s psyche”—and I’ll be forever grateful to Catherine for that.

We’ll be forever grateful to the two of you, for writing (and maintaining) such a heartfelt, comprehensive and knowledgeable book.

[To learn more about Anne or her various creative pursuits, visit her <online> http://annerallen.blogspot.com/%5D   

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Rewrite: A Step-By-Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in Your Screenplay

Rewrite cover

Once an aspiring writer commits pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – there comes a point when s/he starts to believe that every word, every phrase, every idea that results from such effort is the stuff of perfection and, thus, exempt from editorial criticism. Was there ever a more dreaded word in the English vocabulary than “rewrite”? It can be anything from a simple request for clarification, a suggestion about rearranging chapters for a more cohesive flow, or maybe even changing the heroine’s name from Ethel to Juliet, but to the ears of the author who has tirelessly brought the project to life, it all sounds the same: “Are you an idiot or what? This is terrible. You didn’t get it right the first time. Do it again.”

It’s not that the editor hates you or hates your story, nor is the editor telling you anything with the dark intention of making your project worse. The goal, first and foremost, is to make it the best it can be and, accordingly, make you an even better writer than you might ever have thought possible. Paul Chitlik, author of Rewrite: A Step-By-Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in Your Screenplay (Michael Wiese Productions) shares his insights on what you can learn from going back to the drawing board.

 Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: “The best writing is rewriting,” wrote E.B. White. For a lot of aspiring authors, however, any suggestion that their original prose might even remotely contain flaws or inconsistencies causes them to instantly put up defenses and arguments to the contrary. Why, in your opinion, are they so averse to taking their material back to the drawing board?

A:  First, writing is hard.  Writers naturally only want to write as little as they can get away with.  While this works in journalism, and sometimes even fiction, it doesn’t work at all in film or television (and I’ve worked in all of them). 

Sometimes, too, they want to do it “their way.”  They feel restricted by the format, which many call the formula.  While some good films are made outside of the format (very few Hollywood films, to be sure), most fail that don’t follow the traditional format, which developed for 2500 years in playwriting and then 100 years in screenwriting.  We know what works.  Why try to re-invent the wheel.

Speaking of wheels, think of writing within the format as manufacturing an automobile.  You wouldn’t have square tires just because you liked squares or you wanted to be different.  You need round tires, an engine, a transmission, a steering wheel, and brakes.  But even though you are restricted to four wheels (and sometimes, three, but rarely, though one of my favorite roadsters is the three wheel Morgan), you have a wide range of designs in which to show your originality.  A Jetta is very different from a Ferrari, yet they are both automobiles.  And if you want to be original, you certainly can:  You can make a DeLorean or a Honda Fit or a Nissan Cube with a wrap around back window.  But if you decide that you feel restricted by four wheels and want to add a fifth, well, you might find that the old format worked better.  But working off of four, you might go to six and find some success.  Try the four first, though, and have good reason to add the other two, if that’s what you want.

Creating art is a very personal thing, and new writers are not used to the collaborative process that is film and television making.  Unless you’re going to write it, cast it, act in it, shoot it, cut it, and distribute it yourself, you’re going to have to collaborate.  Get used to it.

Q: Which is the more efficient practice (and why): (1) to rewrite after you’re completely done or (2) to rewrite as you’re composing?

A:  I rewrite the previous day’s original pages before I start a new scene.  But I don’t usually go back farther than that unless I need to set up something that I’m paying off in a scene that comes to me outside of the beat sheet.  But it’s best to plough through the first draft to keep your focus and then let it rest for a few days or even weeks before tackling the rewrite with a fresh perspective. 

Q: Okay, let’s be honest, how many rewrites did you do for Rewrite?

A:  Not including the in-process second edition, I did about five rewrites before I submitted it to the publisher and another two after.  Then we both decided it was done.

Q: How did this particular book come about and who do you see as its target demographic?

A:  One of my students in a UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting class in rewriting sent me the outline he had done of the course and suggested I write a book on rewriting.  I thought that was a very good idea since there were no how-to rewrite books.

Its target is new writers who don’t have a support system like a professional writer does.  A professional can go to his manager or agent, his development executive, his director, even his writer friends for feedback.  Someone in Sioux Falls can’t.  Also, some professionals feel they need to do a few drafts on their own before going back to the studio, but don’t want to share their work for whatever reason.  So they refer to my book.  More than one has told me s/he has done this.

Q: Tell us about your academic and professional background that prepared you for the challenges inherent in penning a book.

A:  Academically, I studied comparative literature in college, meaning I read mostly novels and plays in Spanish, English, and Italian.  Hundreds (literally) of them.  I moved to Europe after grad school and worked as a translator and journalist.  Back in the US after five years, I worked as an English as a Second Language instructor and then a college administrator.  One day I said to myself, “This is not the plan.” 

I soon got back into writing, starting with a job as an executive story editor on a syndicated show where I supervised upwards of 140 scripts.  They were mostly crap (even my own), and I supervised the rewriting of every one of them.  Since then, I have written hundreds of television scripts and been commissioned to write over a dozen films (five of which have been made, some under a pseudonym for various reasons).  In classes at UCLA and Loyola Marymount University as well as private workshops over the last twelve years, I have supervised the writing and rewriting of something over 1800 scripts!  I know what works and what doesn’t.  I know the process.  The challenge was boiling down everything into less than 200 pages. 

Q: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?

A:  When I started the book or started my career?  If it’s the career, I would have started fresh out of school instead of wasted so many years doing other things. 

If it’s about the book, well, I wish I would have known (but no one did), what the true profit margins are in e-books.  I know now and my publisher and I have come to a new agreement.

Q: Do you ever go back and read some of the things you wrote earlier in your career? If so, in what ways has your style or focus evolved with age?

A:  I sometimes go back and read old stuff when I’m looking for something specific that has nothing to do with writing and I find my old work.  Some stuff is really bad – no form, no story, just clever wording.  Some is just raw emotion.  My focus is more on story than on self now.  I tend to write about people struggling with an issue instead of me struggling with an issue.

Q: If you hadn’t heard the siren call of television in the 1980’s, might you have gravitated to a career as a playwright? (Hey, directing your first play when you were only 11 seems like an auspiciously theatrical start.)

A:  I did write a couple of plays when I decided to go back into writing in the 1980s.  They’re not too bad.  What I should have done then, and what I’m doing with a project now, is to shoot the play as a play and get it circulated.  It would have shortened the time I spent out in the cold.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about the importance of structure in a screenplay. So many writers simply jump in and start tossing elements about without any preconceived game plan about how to make them coexist and move the story forward. Why is structure a critical factor and what are some examples of movies where structure was clearly nonexistent?

A:  Structure doesn’t restrict, it frees you to explore.  It’s a road map.  Nobody says you have to follow it, but it will be hard to get to your destination without it.  Still, you can go down dirt roads if you want to, but if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably not going to get there, wherever there is.  With a structure, you always have the option to take a diversion.  Without structure, all you have is wandering.

Look at Tree of Life or Cloud Atlas or Melancholia.  But only if you have to, because I’m still trying to get back those lost hours.  They make little or no sense.  Yes, they’re beautiful films, from an aesthetic point of view, but there’s a reason millions didn’t flock to see them, and it’s unlikely that you’ve seen all three, but you have my sympathy if you have.

Q: Is too much focus put on crafting the hero and, thus, neglecting the attributes and motivations of the antagonist that opposes him?

A:  A good film has a balance.  The antagonist must be 110% as smart, as strong, as handsome as the protagonist.  The more interesting he or she is, the more challenging, and, yes, the more human, the more we care about the challenges s/he presents to the protagonist.  The better the antagonist, the better the film.  The protagonist must have barriers that are real.  If they’re not, if they’re not difficult, then we lose interest.

Q: What role do you believe the central emotional relationship plays?

A:  The central emotional relationship (the love object, the person with whom the protagonist must either create or mend a relationship) serves to humanize the protagonist, to give the audience someone else to cheer for, and to give the audience an emotional reason to root for the protagonist.  In a romance or romantic comedy, even in a buddy film, this is the only reason to see the film in the first place. 

Q: Screenwriting is both an art and a science in which storytellers strive to deliver a compelling visual while, at the same time, adhering to the rules and protocols of formatting, time constraints and available resources (including budgets). If you want to break the rules – or make brand new ones that others will want to follow – how do you go about accomplishing that?

A:  First you must know and be able to employ the current rules.  Then you can break them for effect, especially in formatting and editing.  But even if you do something different, such as the found footage film I did for UPN in the 90s, Alien Abduction, which was the precursor for Blair Witch and Paranormal and its imitators, you still need to tell a story.  That is, there’s a person, he has a goal (wants something), but there’s a rock between him and the goal so he has to go over, under, around, or through the rock to get to the goal.  That’s the only rule you can’t break.  All the rest are up for grabs, so long as you tell a good story.  Even the order in which you tell it doesn’t matter (See Memento, which has one story going backwards and another going forwards – both following, in their way, traditional structure.).

Q: What are some movies that were either successful or mind-numbing failures insofar as coloring outside the lines?

A:  See above examples of films I wish I hadn’t seen.  Films outside of the usual are Moonlight Kingdom, Amour (though I would argue it does follow traditional structure in some ways), Groundhog Day (though, again, I would argue it’s right on course).  Can’t remember any more off the top of my head, but will probably think of one just after the interview comes out.

Q: Legend has it that – amongst the plethora of diverse jobs you’ve held – you once joined a circus sans skills but just because you wanted to write about it. What did learning how to put up and take down the tent for a three-ring circus teach you about yourself, about life, and about Hollywood?

A:  Whoa!  Big question.  First, it taught me to be bold.  They had to hire the people that the Employment Development Department had sent over, so I wasn’t picked.  But I told the foreman, on the sly, that I’d work for free.  It told me to be bolder when I could.  It had rained the day before and we were literally up to our ankles in mud.  Many quit.  I did not.  I persisted.  When the foreman asked if I would stay on, I said, “Yes, if you pay me.”  He agreed to pay from that moment on.  “No, from the first minute this morning.”  He agreed, and I ended up setting up and striking the tent several times in the course of the next few weeks.  The next summer, when I showed up, this time with leather gloves because I knew how to prepare myself, he took me on.  That time I just did it for fun. 

I learned I could do just about anything I wanted, and if I did it well, people would pay me for it.  I learned that it’s better to do something hard that’s fun than something easy that isn’t.  After all, I worked alongside elephants that helped put up the tent.  I gained some self confidence.  Once I had to climb to the top of the tent from the outside to repair a seam problem.  If I could do that, I certainly could work with a studio executive or a cranky actress.  

Q: What personal or professional accomplishment are you the most proud of and why?

A:  Still most proud of some of the episodes I worked on for The New Twilight Zone.  We had the freedom to do what we wanted with very little interference.  As a result, my writing partner and I were nominated for a WGA Award.  I would dream of something at night, come in the next morning, and we would write it.  What’s better than that?

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A:  I’ve written a three-part, goes-against-traditional-structure, script that I plan to shoot using a four camera set-up on a sound stage, much like a television play from the Golden Age.  Something shot like Marty or Requiem for a Heavyweight.  Script’s done.  Date’s set.  I’m now raising the money and getting the crew and cast together.  I’ll direct this time, so I’ll have no one to blame if it goes wrong.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?

A:  I’d like them to know how tough it is, that screenwriting is not for the faint of heart nor the thin-skinned.  Not only do you need to be talented, you need to be persistent and patient.  And it helps if you’re independently wealthy and not worried about money.  But if you have talent, practice, drive, and confidence you may be able to make a living at it.  And maybe change the world a little bit.   

To learn more about the author, visit http://www.rewritementor.com.

 

The Art of Assessment

art of assessment
Christina [Hamlett] introduced me to Magdalena Ball last month, as she knew that I had recently started publishing book reviews. I was familiar with Ms. Ball from her previous interview with Christina but I was not expecting Ms. Ball to be quite so generous (even though she refers to herself as “gregarious” and the tone of her book conveys that attitude as well). In addition to this amazing interview and her guide to reviewing, Ms. Ball offers a free e-course “How to be a Reviewer”).
For more information about The Art of Assessment, please check out my book review at http://blogcritics.org/books/article/book-review-and-interview-the-art.  It has become my bible as a reviewer.

Interview by Joanna Celeste

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Q: Why did you write and assemble The Art of Assessment?

A: The Art of Assessment was actually my first book, written about 14 years ago. I wrote it initially as an adjunct to The Compulsive Reader to be used as a how-to guide for my reviewers to help them write more thorough and consistent reviews. It started off as a small, 20 page pamphlet, but as the interest in the site grew, I decided that it would be valuable to turn it into a full-length book and look at a range of reviewing, particularly since, at the time, I was doing a lot of mixed media (children’s videos, concerts, and CDs as well as books) and there wasn’t much out there in the way of guidance.

Q: How do you consider the skill of good assessment an art form?

A: I think that writing a good assessment is like any kind of writing—there is always an element of art in it—the sense of what works and what doesn’t; the “ear” that a reviewer develops by close, active reading. It’s also a skill, which can be learnt to a certain extent, but the creative element—the building of a new piece of writing; determining the overall approach; the theme of the review and writing something that does justice to the work itself—is art.

Q: What is the broader value of a well-written review?

A: Of course a well-written review is of value to both an author and a reader. But in a broader sense, as publishing becomes ever easier, the need for curation is vital. We need close readers who can help filter the good from the bad—applauding great work and providing critical judgment on work that isn’t so good. It’s important for society to have that, and I suspect that the demand will continue to grow dramatically.

Q: You wrote about the need to deliver balanced reviews, and to approach negative reviews with tact, but what about where the story is awful and there aren’t sufficient good points to balance the negative? (Such as with those books you simply cannot finish because the process of reading is too arduous, or where the author’s style is painful, or the book is ridden with so many typos you wonder how it ever got published in the first place.)

A: I feel quite strongly about the fact that, if a book can’t be read in full, that it needs to be put aside and a review bypassed. This is especially important when the author is unknown and the house is small. Writing a super-negative review of an amateurish effort is like kicking a kitten. It’s not only a waste of effort, it’s mean-spirited and can cut down a new author in a way that’s not helpful to anyone. I know this seems a little like a contradiction of my earlier statement, but I also feel that reviewers have a responsibility to remain professional and not use their reviews to put others down needlessly. Curation is one thing and bullying is another. It’s far better to just put a book aside and write a thoughtfully worded note saying that the book needs a professional edit or that it’s not working for you than to write an extremely negative review. I also think that it’s wrong to review a book when you haven’t read it all. It’s fine to not be able to finish a book but I think that if you can’t read it, you shouldn’t review it. Otherwise you’re judging based on skewed criteria. There’s nothing wrong with declining to write a review on the grounds that the quality is not up to publishable standards. I’ve done it a number of times.

That said, if a book is published by a well-known author and/or a reputable publisher and is error riddled or badly written (especially when you know the author can do better) then I think a negative review is most certainly in order. But the book absolutely must be read in full—even if it’s painful. Otherwise I don’t think you’re being fair to the author.

Q: Thank you. (That’s a relief; I have a policy of never writing harsh reviews of new authors as well.) Could you please give us a sample of what you would write to an author in the situation where you’re politely declining a review?

A: Yes. Here’s an example of how I have (on numerous occasions, both for myself and on behalf of another reviewer) declined a review: “Hi Joe, thanks for sending The World According to Cricket. I’m afraid that I’ve been unable to finish the book and therefore am declining the review. As I’m sure you know, the review process is subjective and I’m sure you’ll find another reviewer who will be able to review the book for you. In the meantime, I wish you all the best with the book’s promotions.”

You’re not obliged to give them a reason (this isn’t a paid-for critique), but if the book is rife with errors, you could indicate that. If they’re really dismally untalented, I wouldn’t mention it. There are readers who may well like the book, you’re just not one. You’re not obliged to do this either but if it’s a small/self-published book, I’ll sometimes offer to send it back to them, or even to put it into BookCrossing or donate it to the library—just to be nice—it’s a small world out there! But don’t let them draw you into a discussion. If they try to pump you for reasons (doesn’t usually happen) then be evasive or stop answering the emails altogether.

Q: How do you define the broad scope between the amateur reviewer and the professional reviewer?

A: This used to be a very clear distinction. A professional got paid for their work and an amateur didn’t. However, there are many forms of “payment”, one of which is publicity and books and some reviewers get paid sometimes and sometimes they work for the publicity, the sheer joy of sharing their opinions, or as part of a broader online presence/platform. So the distinction is now fuzzy. Also we’ve moved into a situation where everyone is a reviewer—when people buy a book on Amazon they’re encouraged to put up a review and it doesn’t have to be thorough or professional. There are a lot of opinions available—some useful and some not so useful. So I’d say that the difference between the two is that an amateur is not looking to put together a formal, professional quality review but is just voicing an opinion. A professional is someone who takes the ‘job’ seriously (whether paid or unpaid), and puts care and attention into the review—making sure it’s thorough, balanced, substantiated, well-written and based on a close reading.

Q: As someone with degrees in English literature (Your honors degree in English Literature from the City University of New York and your postgraduate studies of English Literature at Oxford) how valuable do you consider formal education in the pursuit of becoming a truly professional writer?

A: I do think that my studies helped me a lot in learning to read more complex types of texts. I’ve already been a big reader and I don’t expect that this would be any different if I did an engineering degree instead of a literature one, but obtaining an English degree requires a lot of evaluative writing (assessment at college/university level is almost all evaluative writing), close reading, analysis and synthesis and these are all relevant to the kinds of writing I do (particularly nonfiction—the reviewing work for example). However, I do think these days that “formal” education isn’t any more valuable than informal education. I just did a 10 week (free!)

Q: Wow! That course sounds amazing. Where can we find it?

A: ModPo was utterly brilliant. (I don’t know when the next one will happen, but they’re definitely planning another one.) Though it wasn’t part of a “formal” degree course, it was as good as anything I did in a formal setting and hugely valuable to my writing. There are many resources now available to students, and I use the term student very broadly. We’re all students and the learning process never stops. So while I think taking courses is certainly of value and can open and stretch even the oldest, most jaded writers, having a degree matters rather less I think than it used to.

Q: Most review sites have specific format and style guides, and The Art of Assessment emphasizes the need for thoroughness and depth (as illustrated by your sample reviews). How much can a reviewer deviate from those established formats and style in the fostering of their own “voice”?

A: Having a guide makes the writing easier and it’s always important to follow site guidelines when submitting a review, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be creative. I’m not sure all sites would be so open, but I’m very open to novel formats. I’ve published reviews in verse form, in question and answer style, and even in multiple path options!

Q: Multiple path options?

A: I actually removed the multiple path review as the reviewer wanted to publish it elsewhere and it was a paid gig—quite a few years ago—but it went something like this: If you think that the review should talk about characterisation next, then click here. If you prefer it to talk about plot, click here.

As long as a review is, as I mention a lot (on my little soapbox), thorough, balanced, substantiated, well-written and based on a close reading, as far as I’m concerned, I’m willing to take any kind of format or structure. Of course it takes a lot of skill (or art if you like!) to be that creative. It’s far easier to stick to a template.

Q: Your book covered almost everything but a travel section. While the basic principles probably apply, could you direct us to any specific resources for learning how to deliver travel reviews (in addition to reading other reviews) and where we might get them published?

A: That’s a good point and maybe I’ll add it later (you’ve already given me a few new chapters to work on!). I guess one of the reasons I didn’t include travel is because travel writing is a whole genre in itself and encompasses a lot more than just a review—a whole book can be written around a trip or visit. But for those who love to travel, it’s a wonderful profession and there are jobs out there for it, too, especially for really good writers. You can also combine travel writing with other forms of writing. For example, Anthony Bordain is the travelling chef. Glenn A. Baker is the travelling rock and roller. Firstly, as with any other form of writing, I would recommend beginning by reading others, and getting a feel for the best kinds of travel writing. Michael Palin and Bill Bryson come to mind immediately. Also magazines like Conde Nast Traveler are a good source of shorter forms of travel writing: There is also quite a good online site.

Thank you. That’s very generous of you! In your book, you suggest new reviewers read up on good reviews to hone their craft. How would you recommend someone contact an established reviewer to request guidance or mentorship?

Well, there’s nothing like a little flattery. One easy way to get guidance and support is to submit work to an established site. This will often result in some excellent guidance and if you get a few reviews published and want more guidance or mentorship, it’s easier to ask for it. I do think a direct request for mentorship might seem a little odd. There are, however, formal mentorships available through almost every writers’ center and that might be a good place to start.

Q:Thank you. (I’ll hunt down those writer centers for my website.) You were born in New York City, studied in England and live now in NSW Australia. How does your international background contribute to your approach in reviewing (and life in general)?

A: I think that leaving the country I grew up in has broadened my perspective in many ways. I was pretty green when I went to England! There was so much I didn’t know—about geography, about history, about the world in general. I was quite an embarrassment, especially because, as a New Yorker, I naturally thought of myself as reasonably sophisticated and worldly and wasn’t backwards in making my uninformed opinions known. Having been exposed to a number of cultures I feel like I’m multilingual (in English!) and able to read across cultural boundaries quite well.

Q: As someone who has been exposed to a few different cultures around the world, I understand; you couldn’t have encapsulated the experience better. I love how you talk about “reading across cultural boundaries”. What’s an example of that from your life?

A: ln my life I work with a lot of different nationalities. I can often understand the subtle body language of an Australian versus a Canadian versus a New Zealander—or their colloquial expressions. It helps with communication. In reading, I feel I can more easily penetrate into the setting and context of a book. For example, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, one of my favourite novels, is so inherently Australian, from the way people talk to the kinds of dreams they have and the way they relate to one another. I feel I understand that now, whereas I wouldn’t have gotten it to the same extent before I left.

Q: You received a Masters in Business from the Charles Sturt University and a Marketing degree from the University of Newcastle. When and how does this education and experience come into play as a reviewer (and in the direction of your various endeavors)?

A: I’m not sure that the business and marketing degree have had a dramatic impact on me as a reviewer—they were both done for the day job and certainly taught me some skills in terms of metrics, statistics, promotional processes, and analysis, which may have some positive effect on my ability to promote my work, my site, and my other writing (the novels and poetry books for example). Mostly though, they were time-consuming when I did them and impacted on my ability to spend more time doing creative work. Everything is a trade-off in terms of time.

Q: Tell us more about your work as a knowledge specialist in a multinational company. What does your job encompass and how does this feed into your passions?

A: Firstly, my day job supports my writing habit. Knowing that the money is coming in frees me to not worry too much about the overall financial situation with my writing—I’m free to do what pleases me and to not stress too much over sales figures. I’ve been doing this job in various guises for nearly 24 years (!), so I’m reasonably well-skilled at it and have managed to organize very flexible working hours which has suited me through the births of my three children, a range of life transitions, and of course my all-consuming writing passions. So I’m very lucky to have the job. Additionally, I work in R&D, managing the library, looking after a range of commercialization activities and am actually very stimulated by the science (as my poetry will certainly show). I’ve even walked out of a meeting with a few choice words or concepts in my head, and had to write an entire poem on the spot.

Q: Cool! How many poems from your Sublime Planet have come from this process?

A: They’re all kind of sciency! But at least 30% were directly inspired at work. Plasmonic nanobubbles, Dryland Salinity, Blind Deconvolution, and Plane Strain all came out of words that came up in real conversations and left me salivating! (I’m a little strange that way I know).

Q: (I don’t think that’s strange at all, but then I’m a bit of a closet geek.) ow has your work as a reviewer enhanced your authorship?

A: One of the key things my reviewing has done in a marketing sense is to give me a big online profile with readers. The Compulsive Reader has over 10,000 subscribers to our monthly newsletter and we get some 30,000 hits a day—all readers! That’s an amazing network of people who know me, have been reading my reviews for some 14 years and who I can promote my other writing work to. In addition, being in the habit of close-reading has really helped me to understand what makes for a good book—it’s “ear-training” that translates into a really good sense of what does and doesn’t work from a writing point of view. No class can teach that—it has to come from regular reading. Of course I also read how-to books and having a regular in-pouring of new material has not hurt my own writing (other than to distract me away from it since there’s almost nothing I’d rather do than curl up with a book).

Q: In your previous interview with Ms. Christina Hamlett in November, you mentioned you had nearly completed your next book of poetry [Sublime Planet], and that you were on your third novel—this one a science fiction/time travel adventure. Please update us on these projects.

A: The writing part of Sublime Planet is done. That’s a collaboration with my poetry partner Carolyn Howard-Johnson. The book is a full-length poetry book focused on environmental poetry. We’re currently editing and working with a wonderful artist who is doing the cover for us. The idea with that book is to release it for Earth Day 2013 (April 22). We’re planning to give a proportion of the profits to an environmental charity (yet to be confirmed), so the whole project is very exciting and bringing together a number of threads in my life that are of interest to me. There was a strong sustainability theme in Black Cow as well, so it’s a good follow-on.

My third novel will probably take a bit more time to finish! I’m not a fast fiction writer and am still hard at work finalizing the plot points and setting up my beat sheet (a step-by-step plot outline), but I’m pretty excited about the direction the story is taking—it’s a big change for me and working cross genre is proving very interesting.

Q: Please elaborate on how your work is cross-genre.

A: The work has elements of sci-fi (my poetry too)—there is time travel (sometimes in the poetry), aliens, and the new novel will also be historical fiction, but it’s all rooted in the psychological and more literary fiction than anything else.

Q: From my research into the publishing industry, I was advised against promoting more than one project at a time, but you manage to write and market across several genres (nonfiction, poetry and prose, as well as your reviews and blogging), seemingly simultaneously. What would be your advice to others who want to tackle a similar range of projects?

A: Sometimes across several genres in a single work! I think that it’s important to do what excites you and gives you pleasure as a writer and not take too much note of the market or what’s ‘hot right now’ (particularly because the buying public is fickle). That’s why I’m so grateful to the day job for freeing me from trying to do a ‘breakthrough’ work. I try to stay interested in what I’m doing and for me that means working in different media. When I’m finding the fiction is challenging and I need a break I’ll work on poetry (which is always pleasurable for me). Nonfiction (blogging, writing articles, etc) and reviewing is always there too—something I tend to do for enjoying as a second part of my reading. I think that it’s good for the writing mind to have different hats—keeps everything fresh. I also find that the exacting process of getting a single line perfect in poetry can make for richer, more vibrant and poetically powerful prose. Having a good sense of story and character development often makes for more interesting poetry and nonfiction. And of course the more you write the better you understand what others are writing and the processes behind them, so everything works together.

Q: You are a poet, writer, reviewer, mother, radio host, blogger, friend, wife and life-artist; how do you manage to juggle everything, be stellar at what you do, and keep your sanity?

A: I’m definitely a juggler (but not sure what ‘life-artist’ is—sounds good though!).

Q: I consider you a life-artist because you appear to handle everything with a certain grace, and you project the sense that life should be approached as another art form; something to be celebrated, played with, rather than endured.

A: I’ll take it (even if the grace part isn’t, um, always true). I credit my sanity (such as it is) to a few things—firstly, my husband, who most certainly keeps me grounded (sometimes kicking and screaming that I want to stay airborne!). My children also definitely keep me grounded. I guess if I’m giving advice on how to juggle so many things at one time and keep the sanity I’d say to try and focus on each one when it’s being done, or as my mother would put it, ‘be here now’. So if I’m reading a book, I’ll read it as if it’s the only thing I’m doing. Even if I’m dipping in and out a lot, because I keep getting interrupted, I’ll still read it with intensity; even when I’m not reading, I’ll let my mind play over the story, the characters, and the plot. If I’m writing, I’ll try to give my writing serious focus when I’m doing it. It may be only 10 minutes of focus, but that’s the thing I’m concentrating on for that 10 minutes and I try to make it like it’s the only thing in my life just for a little while. Otherwise ‘overwhelm’ sets in and nothing is done well.

Q: How do you deal with writer’s block?

A: For me, the block tends to come when I hit some problem—usually a fiction based one—such as how I work out a plot issue. I like to brainstorm through it—to just stop writing and do some mindmaps or talk to my kids about it; they’re a great source of plot since they all read a lot (don’t know where they get it from).

Q: That’s brilliant. I brainstorm with my family as well. May I ask, what are mindmaps?

A: Mindmaps are where you have your central idea in the centre and brainstorm related points around it.

I was really struggling with something the other day and I told my daughter and she just started throwing ideas at me at a very rapid pace—how about…how about…what if… She was really awesome (and I promised her a credit). By the time she had finished playing around with ideas with me, I was completely unstuck and ready to get back to it. For people without such a wonderful, in-house resource, using any kind of brainstorming method or working with a friend often helps. Another thing that helps me with block is to swap genres. So if I’m struggling with a poem, I’ll switch to my novel. If I’m having difficulty with the novel, I might just take a break and write a review. All writing has a tendency to free you up—getting the writerly juices flowing again.

Q: What is your favorite method of preventing burn-out (like when you read too many books)?

A: I never burn-out from reading too many books! Reading is almost always a relaxing pleasure for me. But I do have tendency to have far too many projects on the go at once, not to mention a busy family life and a full-time day job (see question above about ‘sanity’). I’m kind of energized by all the stuff going on around me (it’s all interesting), but if the noise levels start to get too much (I’m pretty sensitive to noise) or I feel I’ve got one too many projects going on and I’m not giving decent attention to any one thing—I become too abstracted and dispersed—then the best way for me to deal with that feeling is exercise. In my case, breathing-based exercise like swimming or yoga is ideal. 30 minutes of swimming laps, or an hour of yoga, will almost always settle me and help me get perspective or work out problems. It’s not always easy to take that 30-60 minutes when I’m so overloaded, but I try to do it nearly every day. If I don’t, I really feel it.

Q: This is very helpful, thank you. One area you were not able to cover in your book was that of organization (in terms of how to schedule deadlines intelligently, offering enough time for one’s own editing process, for the review site’s submission turn-around, etc.) as well as dealing with authors or people who consider a review has not accurately captured their product. Will there be a follow-up book that covers these subjects, or supplementary articles published through your blog?

A: Organization is a pretty big topic that extends well beyond reviewing, but perhaps I’ll take you up on your suggestion to look at how, for example, one might deal with the very likely scenario of having many books to review and setting up a priority system. I have to work it out myself first! Actually I do have a kind of system—I do try to do things in order, but sometimes there are really urgent deadlines. For example, Mike Scott of the Waterboys is in Australia this week, and I only got his book to review last week. He was pretty keen for me to include info in the review on his Australian tour, so I put aside everything else and just did that. Impending interviews will often require that a book gets prioritized as well. I always use a to-do list which I manage on an annual, monthly, weekly, and daily basis, ensuring that the big projects flow through from annual to daily so that I find time each day to work on them (otherwise they’d never get done…).

But overall, scheduling deadlines intelligently, leaving enough time for editing and review site submission turn-around all come down to general organizational practices, which may be beyond the scope of my book, and have been covered really well elsewhere. David Allen is a pretty smart guru on time management. He has a free newsletter, podcasts and lots more on the topic. I also like Steven Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Productive People. It informs most time management philosophies that are out there and is still simple enough to just incorporate into a lifestyle. You can get the habits online.

In terms of dealing with disgruntled authors or marketers, basically I just try to deal with them professionally, but not too humbly. If you’ve read the whole book (or experienced the whole product—see my note above about not reviewing something you can’t finish), written [your review] well and substantiated your comments, you don’t need to justify your review in any way. You’re not a marketer, nor are you working for the author and it’s not up to the author to judge your review.

Your audience is primarily the reader and being honest is important. If someone wants a PR person, they’ll need to hire one. Otherwise, by all means, strive for thoroughness and accuracy and fix errors where they occur (and don’t review on a partial experience—I know I keep saying that!), but don’t feel the need to pander to author egos. Negative reviews are, unfortunately, part of the process (all authors get them), and a reviewer should never apologise for their review.

Q: You previously discussed happiness and optimism with Ms. Christina Hamlett. What gives you strength?

A: My family is my key source of centredness which, if it’s not too new-agey a thing to say, is the core of my strength.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to say?

A: Joanna, this was such a thorough interview—I think you’ve covered everything! If readers want more, they can always drop by my website. There are some freebies there, as well as information on all of my books.

What’s Color Got To Do With It? Paint Color Ideas That Create Balance and Harmony In Your Home

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“Color,” wrote Claude Monet, “is my day-long obsession, joy and torment.”
Across the country and around the world there is likely no shortage of homeowners who feel the same way – vacillating between the unabashed delight of finding that absolute perfect shade of pastel paint for the dining room…and stressing out that what seemed like such a great decision to go for a bold citrus in their home office now makes them feel as if they’re trapped inside a giant orange. So how do you go about selecting a harmonious hue that you’ll not only love living in but that will also help you improve your mood and increase your energy? Pasadena designer Jeanette Chasworth aka “The Color Whisperer” took time from her busy schedule to talk about her new book, What’s Color Got To Do With It? Paint Color Ideas That Create Balance and Harmony In Your Home.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: Tell us about the journey you took to become a designer.

A: My mother raised me to be a designer but didn’t know it. She knew when she bought her home that she would never move and since most people move house every 7 years, it seemed logical to her that she move her house around every 7 weeks. She had had polio as a child and she constantly changed the house around to control the rest of the family’s behavior and to make it easier for her to work around the home. We never knew when we would get up on a Saturday morning with a list of furniture to move or paint a wall or whatever. I started out in publishing and quickly realized that I was not in the right spot for me, I took a class at the local community college because I was bored. After the first class, I was head over heels in love and I changed careers.

Q: So what made you decide to write a book on color?

A: As part of school, I learned a lot about color as my career progressed, that was where I saw the most dramatic change in people. People always asked me – what’s the one thing I can do to give me the biggest bang for my buck and the answer is color. It seems to be a place where people really get stuck in working on their home. I thought the information in this book would shed a lot of light on HOW to go about selecting color and making it easier for people to make a better decision.

Q: You chose an interesting title. What does color have to do with it?

A: Color affects us every day. It can drain you, make you hungry, calm you down or invigorate you. We all have color in our homes and how we use it affects our lives. We all have unique personalities and so does color. Each color can create a certain “energy” in a room and it needs to match the people in it.

People will sometimes say, “I don’t really notice the colors around me, my home is just someplace I sleep, it’s really not a big deal.”

I don’t doubt it and it’s probably stark white or all beige, sterile and boring. You probably haven’t done much since you moved in and that’s another reason why you don’t spend time in it, there’s nothing of you there so why would you? It’s easy to add some personality to your home with a little color. It needs some spice, something to create some emotion, something that will evoke a feeling in you.

Q: So you said color can make me hungry?

A: Orange and red can both increase your appetite. Remember when all the fast food restaurants and coffee shops were those colors? The idea was to get you in, feed you and get you out quick. The combination made you hurry out. Now we have WiFi and “Going to get coffee” has a whole different meaning. They want you to linger, to have meetings there, to work on your computer there so the colors are all changing, you will still see these colors but the combination is less. Red and orange affect your tastebuds and can make your food taste better which is why you will often see one of them in a restaurant.

Q: What kind of effect can color have in my home?

A: Finding the right colors for your home is important, especially when there’s more than one person living there. In keeping with your opening reference to orange, it’s a great color. I love it personally but it’s got a lot of energy to it. Not everyone can handle that level of energy in their home. I had a client who wanted me to select paint colors for her living room. She gave me a bunch of peach samples to choose from and didn’t want to look at my samples. I selected the best from her pile and she painted the room. Her roommate stopped talking to her. This went on for weeks before it finally came out that she hated the paint color. My client remembered that I was going to look at other colors and called me back. I selected a softer gold for the room, which brought out more of the painting and created a much calmer atmosphere for the roommate but still had a lot of life for my client. As soon as the room was painted, the roommate loved it and their relationship was back on track.

Another client had a very dramatic change. I was brought in to look at the master bedroom. When I went in there, I noticed that the 9 year old child had a bed in the parent’s room. I asked about that, and they said that she was still having nightmares from 911 and this was four years after. I asked if she had lost anyone in it and the answer was no. I asked to see the child’s room after that. Mom had done her best to create a beautiful room for her kid with a Carousel theme. As we talked, it came out that the child was dyslexic and the problem was instantly clear to me. Stripes are hard for someone with dyslexia to live with because they don’t see a straight line, it’s constantly wavering. These were thick stripes and could easily remind a child of the Twin Towers. I then explained that yellow could help her to learn better. Mom said there was a lot of yellow in the living room and the little girl practically lived in there. They painted the room and everyone got their own rooms back.

Q: Speaking of children, should they have a say-so in how their rooms should be painted? What if, for instance, you have an aspiring Goth girl who wants all of her bedroom walls painted black?

A: Absolutely, a child needs to have a say-so! This is their space and it should reflect their tastes and preferences. This is a great way to teach them a bit about personal style and how to show it. But, under no circumstances do you paint your teenage child’s room all black. A fellow color consult had a client who’s son wanted an all black room and it nearly killed him. Our bodies NEED color and light. But, colors are an expression of personality, and having black as a focus color in a room doesn’t mean turning the room into a cave. Paint the ceiling black, it will create a dramatic look. Have black accents like black furniture or draperies but paint the walls a color, maybe a deep purple or green if there’s a need for dark colors. You could also paint the walls white and use a black stencil on the walls for a dramatic statement There are some really great rooms out there in magazines where black and white has been done well – the contrast and drama of black-white is trending right now. If you are going to use black walls, then you need to have a white ceiling, lots of white molding and bright furniture. There needs to be something light in the room to make it work.

Q: Playing off of the previous question, what are some color tips for parents looking to “grow” a room as their offspring transition to tweens and teens?

A: I think that color grows with children. Many children have a favorite color and that is a pretty good bet. Children are much more in tune with what their bodies need than adults. I also don’t believe that you paint a child’s room once and forget it as they grow, no more than you would expect the bike you give them to last their whole lives.. They will want change as they mature. Paint is a simple fix. They go through so many changes and as they become more independent, they will want more input. Give them guidelines and let them grow.

Q: Share with us the effect that colors have on us physically and emotionally.

A: Well, I often get clients that are in a place of change….new home, new career, or even someone who has died. Our homes are a mirror of who we are and when there’s a change in our lives, we need to reflect it in our home. I have found it really helpful in people dealing with the last stages of grief. They are rediscovering who they are and have to make some changes in order to find that person. Some take the opportunity to finally get a piece of furniture they always wanted or to create their dream kitchen or bathroom. Combining old memories and making room for new memories is really important.

Q: Much has been written about individuals belonging to a particular “season” in order to plan their wardrobes accordingly. Does the same apply to the personality of their cottages, castles and condos?

A: Absolutely. There are many tests out there that categorize people and this is just another one. There are similar traits to each season and each season has its own palette as well as shapes, textures and themes that fit them better than others. It’s why there are so many styles out there. We are each unique and our style is as unique as we are. Using these techniques creates a home that fits the personality and energy of a client and makes them feel hugged every time they walk through the door.

Q: What do you mean feel “hugged” by your home?

A: Have you ever been in a room, restaurant or hotel that you just can’t wait to get out of? For instance, for years, there was a big box store that had super bright lights. I would walk in there and couldn’t wait to leave. I asked many of my peers and apparently men in their 20 and 30’s loved it, but women weren’t as excited by it and many hated it more than I did. They have since changed their lighting so maybe they found out that they needed to expand their reach. Do you know how you feel in your favorite outfit? Like you can do anything? That’s what you should feel in your home. Empowered, relaxed, happy. What does a hug feel like: safe, warm, comforting. Your home can do that for you, too.

Q: So what is your own “season” and what does it convey about your personality?

A: Many people get their season just from their coloring, but your season should go deeper than just the tone of your skin. I am an Autumn. And just as Autumn leaves change, Autumns are agents of change. Leadership, bold action, assertiveness, and determination are hallmarks of Autumns. I first learned about seasons in a program with a wardrobe stylist, and wearing those colors in clothing unlocked a new source of energy for me. I thought, how amazing it would be to live in a space that fortified me in the same way!

I even reflect my Autumn season in my mission as a designer – I bring change to people – not just in their homes but in themselves. As an Autumn I am driven, like to “get things done” and if there isn’t a clear path, I am happy to blaze a new trail for my clients. I explain clearly to my clients, educate them on the process and help them make the best decisions. I believe we can do more when there is trust and confidence in each other. I am always truthful with my clients and encourage them to be open and honest with me as well.

Your season is not just ‘skin deep’, but incorporates your personality. The colors you use have a more powerful effect on your life, whether that is your health and energy level, your relationships, or your confidence.

Q: Painting a room is often recommended as a quick, easy and economical “fix” to spruce up a room. Looking at a paint sample the size of a postage stamp, however, makes it hard for most people to envision the entire space in that shade. What’s your best advice to DIYers in bridging that divide? (i.e., are there software programs comparable to hair salons with programs that enable you to see what a new cut or color will look like before you take a drastic plunge)

A: I am not fond of the computer programs that fill in the color mostly because they don’t take into account the amount of light in a room. Many paint companies have addressed this problem by selling sample size paint containers. Dunn Edwards, Benjamin Moore both have small containers that are large enough to paint a sample on the wall. I recommend putting a large sample on the wall, especially if you are going from white walls to a stronger color, it will look much darker against the white and a larger sample will give you a truer picture. I also recommend putting samples in different parts of the room and particularly near doorways so that you can see how the color works with the color in the next room. The light will change in different areas of the room and you need to see what it looks like in more than one place to get a good idea. Many companies have larger samples that they use to give to designers and painters. If you really don’t want to paint, you may be able to ask for a larger sample. You can also ask your designer or painter if they have access to larger samples.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about the effects of natural and artificial light on paint color. For instance, if you paint a room in late afternoon by fluorescent light and it looks lovely, how do you know that when you open the curtains the next morning to a brilliantly sunny day it won’t look like elephant breath?

A: I recommend that you put a sample on the wall and look at it in different lights as the day changes to night. It is the only way to get a true reading. I also recommend selecting the color in the actual light that will be in the room. That isn’t always possible. Select paint color with the amount of natural light that comes into the room. (Don’t do it after dark!)

Q: From a designer’s eye, is it easier/harder for you to reinvent an existing room for a client or to conceptualize something entirely from scratch?

A: I don’t think either one is easier/harder. Every room has its own parameters that we have to follow. Are we keeping the sofa? Can we take down a wall? Part of the process is discovery. As a designer, it’s my job to think of things that you may not and so it may or may not fit into the original scope of what you thought you wanted. The best thing is to create the room you didn’t know you always dreamed about. I love to find out what my client’s personality is and how to make it work with the house.

Q: A lot of new homes and condos embrace the idea of open-concept living wherein the living room, dining room and kitchen co-exist without the division of walls. Without the latter to delineate and compartmentalize these three areas, does it mean that this ginormous space should be monochromatic?

Many of them are, at least as far as paint goes but it doesn’t need to be that way. Accent walls can add some extra color. Using color that relates to the other colors is important. Furniture, rugs and accessories can add a great deal of color and personality to a room. You can also dress up the ceiling to add some color. Go take a look at the latest HGTV dream house in Hawaii. I don’t like all that they did but they did a nice job of unifying the house with the color green. While there are several other colors in the house, they all work well together and the green is a constant, making the home feel pulled together well.

Q: Is it smarter to paint first and then accessorize around that color scheme or vice versa? Depending on your answer, is there a correlation to shopping for clothes?

A: Yes, it correlates with clothes. So let’s say you find a pair of shoes you LOVE….then you find the jacket, the top, the accessories to go with it. You can always start with something you love. Is that a picture, a vase, tile, fabric? It doesn’t matter but you need something that inspires you. There’s a Kohler commercial where a couple presents a faucet to and architect and say “design it around this”. That one object can be anything but your jumping off place needs to be strong, whether that means you have a strong attachment, or it’s a strong design element. That said, the color of paint is the easiest to adjust. You may love a color and then you go find the fabrics but they don’t quite match, but if you start with the fabric, it’s easier to tweak the paint afterwards.

Q: What do you feel is the reigning trend these days – neutral colors or bold, vibrant hues and do you believe these choices have any correlation to the current economy?

A: Trends are going towards bright colors – in part as a reaction to the recession. People want to be happy and if surrounding yourself in bright colors makes your inside world better, go for it. Neutrals are always in style, but I also find most people use too much white or off-white – mostly out of indecision and not knowing what will work!

There seems to be a big black and white phase coming in – perhaps influenced by the Kardashians, and similar celebrities with dramatic lifestyles. They have certainly made the combo popular.

The trend toward simplicity has been growing. We have cell phones, iPads, and tons of electronics to make life simpler but it also means it’s harder to “get away”. Styles with simple floor plans, simple lines, and less intense colors have become more popular, giving us less “stuff” crowding our vision, more space to breathe.

Trends in our lives and communities have an effect on us, but in your home, it’s more important that you match the color with your energy, your lifestyle, than to follow the trends. I recently wrote a blog on trends and how they reflect what’s going on in the economy. http://www.thecolorwhisperer.com/uncategorized/emerald-it-is/.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: The newest development is our store – http://shop.thecolorwhisperer.com/ It is open right now, and the store is becoming a wonderful place for clients to explore and discover how to express their personality through design. I am able to deliver personal service to clients in a great new way, as I create rooms and collections that enable people to ‘shop by season’. This will give people the opportunity to see what the seasons really look like in furniture and experience them in their home. It also offers a great collection of unique items gathered together in one place. If you like a room, you can buy as much of the room as suits you. Clients that visit often will find new collections, rooms, and items for their season all the time.

I am also working on an e-book that gets into how design helps us deal with the changes in our lives.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I strongly believe that when you change the surroundings in your home, your life will be transformed, allowing you to heal your past and step into your future with the solid foundation of a home that flourishes around you. When you are ready to bring your home to life, contact me at jeanette@thecolorwhisperer.com and you, too, will feel “hugged by your home.”

To learn more about What’s Color Got To Do With It? Paint Color Ideas That Create Balance and Harmony In Your Home (Publisher: Chasworth Place, Inc.) or about the author and her company, visit http://www.thecolorwhisperer.com.

LIONS and TIGERS and TEENS

LTTCover“Adolescence is a period of rapid changes,” wrote an unknown author.  “Between the ages of 12 and 17, for example, a parent ages as much as 20 years.”

Was there ever a more mystifying or mercurial entity sharing your roof and eating all of your food than a human teenager? In her new parenting book, LIONS and TIGERS and TEENS, popular columnist Myrna Beth Haskell wisely and whimsically affirms the empathetic message “You’re not alone” to the bewildered moms and dads of today’s younger generation.

 Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Let’s start out by looking at how – and why – your popular syndicated column Lions and Tigers and Teens transitioned to a full-fledged book of the same name.

A: Since I have dialogue with parents on a regular basis, many of them suggested I put the columns together into a guide.  I started to look at all of the columns I had already written, and I realized that compiling my favorites together was a fabulous idea!  The chapters are actually longer than the original column installments.  I added more from the original interviews, and I added additional tips.

Q: Newspaper and magazine columns are typically stand-alone fare on a variety of different topics. In compiling columns for inclusion, how did you keep the whole thing cohesive for prospective readers?

A: This was easier than one might think.  I was able to group the columns into sections so that parents could easily scan the book for “general” types of issues/solutions.  For instance, the section “Firsts” deals with issues such as a teen’s first time behind the wheel or first boyfriend/girlfriend.  The section titled “The Bad and the Ugly” deals with serious problems teens might face (i.e. depression, substance abuse, bullying).

Q: What is the overarching theme of the book and who is your target demographic?

A: Theme/Central message:  No parent is perfect. However, if you are willing to try different approaches and communicate with your teen regularly, you are well on your way to solving any issue.  Collaborate with your teens to find solutions to problems, and your teen will be well on his/her way to becoming an accomplished adult.

Demographic: Caregivers of teens (moms, dads, secondary teachers, etc.) – generally men and women between the ages of 38 and 55. 

Q: Do today’s teenagers have it harder or easier than they did when you were a teen yourself?

A: I think that many of the issues are the same.  Teens are still dealing with peer pressure, body image, self esteem, bullying, violence, and academic stresses.  One stark difference in my opinion: the amount of violence teens are exposed to.  I do not remember movies and games being so focused on gratuitous and graphic violence – many times void of consequences.  I think teens have more access to this type of media today due to the Internet and social networking.  Violence is exploited and easily accessed.

Q: Knowing what you know now as a product of life experiences, would you ever want to go back for a do-over? If so, what would you do differently?

A: I would never want to “do-over” any stage of my life.  I truly believe that we are who we are today because of our past experiences – good and bad.  This also goes for parenting.  Every parent makes mistakes.  You learn from them and you move on.

Q: What fascinates, inspires and/or troubles you the most about the modern teen mindset?

A: Technology can be wonderful and it offers teen’s exposure to places and ideas that help to expand the mind and imagination.  However, there is a dark side to all of this exposure.  Today’s technology exacerbates “instant gratification.” Texting, IMing, and other forms of shortened/instant messaging create problems we didn’t once have.  To some extent, many teens are losing the ability to express themselves in reasoned and thoughtful ways.  They are building relationships where the only contact is via a computer, as opposed to taking the time to actually “be together” and talk to someone.  Bullying has also become more hurtful (cyber bullying) where egregious comments or harmful images can be sent to hundreds of peers in an instant.  

Q: Should parents allow celebrities to be their teenagers’ role models?

A: Teens should understand that celebrity is a business…that what they see on TV or in movies is a fabrication of reality.  Many celebrities are portrayed in the media as going down the wrong path because it sells newspapers and advertising space.  Parents should make an effort to point out good things teen celebrities are doing in their communities and talk about why instant celebrity might cause a person to make bad choices.  It is a pipe dream to think your teenager won’t be curious about celebrities, so you need to have frequent and open discussions about celebrity.

Q: Your love of the written word was ignited at a very young age. Were you a voracious reader as an adolescent and a teenager?

A: I was definitely into books.  I was into the horror genre as a teenager.  I read a lot of Stephen King.  I also loved books about adolescent angst written from the adolescent perspective.  I wrote a book review column for my high school newspaper.

Q: What were some of your favorite books?

A: Favorites in adolescence: The Shining, The Stand, The Exorcist, Are You there God? It’s Me, Margaret, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

Favorites in College: Catch 22, Beloved, Misery, A Clockwork Orange, The Sound and the Fury

Other favorites: In Cold Blood, Memoirs of a Geisha, Angela’s Ashes

Wow…I guess these lists are quite diverse! Basically, I love any book that really goes into “character.”

Q: What are you reading now?

I’ve just started Stephen King’s 11/22/63 about the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  I also have Killing Kennedy on my shelf – waiting to be read.  Unfortunately, I do not have the time I would like to read strictly for pleasure.  Much of my time reading is spent doing research for my features and column installments.

Q: At what point did you awaken to the realization that you wanted to make your living as a full-time writer?

A: In elementary school I knew I wanted to be a writer.  However, I didn’t start out as a full time writer.  That is extremely difficult to do. Most budding writers have day jobs.  I used to teach at a community college, and I also worked as a technical writer.  Once I began freelancing in 1997, my writing career developed from there.  It takes time to build relationships with editors.  It was very part-time the first several years when my children were young.

Q: Did you have mentors to guide you on that journey? If so, what were the most valuable lessons you learned from them?

A: I’ve stayed in touch with two former teachers – one is an author and one a poet.  I’ve asked them both for advice over the years.  More recently, I’ve had contact with other writers via social networking, as well as folks I’ve had contact with whom I’ve met through my work.

I guess I’ve learned through experience and from mentors that you have to love to write -first and foremost.  Most writers do not strike it rich.  They write for the love of writing…which is what I do.

Q: You’re the parent of two children. Over the course of writing your columns and developing the structure of your book, did you learn anything new that could be applied to your own parenting style?

A: I definitely learned to lighten up at times.  My lead-in for “Tornadoes and Other Hazards” has a light-hearted tone partly because I realized I had to let my son’s sloppy lifestyle go a bit – “pick your battles” comes to mind.  There is a difference between issues that drive us crazy because they just “drive us crazy” and issues that concern our teens’ health and well being.  I decided to focus on the latter. I’ve also learned that there are many approaches that work.  You need to decide what’s best based on your family dynamic and the personality and maturity level of your teen.

Q: Are you a parent, a pal or both?

A: I’m a “parent” most of the time.  I think some parents try too hard to be “friends” with their teens.  Teens need parents…adults to guide them and draw boundaries.  However, at times, I do things with my teens that a friend might also do…including giggling with my daughter until I have the hiccups or playing video games with my son.  You have to know how to have a good time with your teens even though your first job is to “parent.”

Q: At the end of each chapter in the book is a section called Tips and Tales. What were some of the best tips that other parents contributed?

A: The “Tips and Tales” sections include great advice from other parents.  My best tips:  One parent wrote in about her own experience with depression in her teen years for the “Down in the Dumps” chapter which addresses teen depression.  I also received some great tips on anti-bullying programs at various schools.  Parents, who also happen to be principals, high school guidance counselors, and teachers, wrote in with great tips.  Their advice is obviously coming from more than one perspective.

Q: How much research went into the planning of the book?

A: Research is extremely important for the type of writing I do.  I consider myself an educator, so I have to get it right.  I do general research on each topic before I even approach experts to interview.  The direction my topics take is influenced by my experiences, but often changes a bit once I do research and interview experts (psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, educators).  This is information my readers need to be armed with when they approach a problem.

I also did research on how to put the book together.  I looked at other compilations and popular parenting books.  The chapters are grouped into sections to make it easy for parents to find a particular topic.  I opted to do my own foreword because I was able to talk about my inspiration for the book and column.  The afterword (“Common Parentisms…and the answers your teens are thinking, not saying”) is humorous and goes with the tone of many of the lead-ins for the chapters (It kind of raps up the “generation gap”).  After all, parents of teens have to have a sense of humor. 

Q: Were there existing parenting books that influenced your approach to Lions and Tigers and Teens?

A: Since my book is a compilation of my favorite column installments, I would say the influence started with my column.  My work falls into the parenting genre, and I favor a lighthearted, down-to-earth, or humorous tone in the books and columns I choose to read by others.  I absolutely love Erma Bombeck!  I also enjoy the Newbie Dad column, by Brian Kantz.  Actually, I enjoy several “dad” columns and books, including work by Bruce Sallan (A Dad’s Point of View).  I think dads have a propensity to laugh at themselves more so than moms. 

Q: What do you feel is the most serious problem confronting teens in the 21st century and what is the remedy to help them deal with it?

A: There seems to be a lot more stress on teens today – school stress, social stress, stress about finding a job when they get out of school, stress about affording college, etc.  Stress is the underlying factor for a lot of problems that adolescents face (teen depression, substance abuse, test anxiety…the list goes on).  If parents can guide a teen to focus on their goals, improve their self esteem, face issues head-on, and allow them to make mistakes…stress will decrease and teens can focus on becoming a valuable member of society.

Q: Which chapters proved the most challenging?

A: “The Truth, the Whole Truth, well…sort of” (about what to tell your teens about your past) was difficult because there were many diverse opinions.

“That Ain’t the Way to Have Fun” (about teen substance abuse) required a lot of research.

Q: Conversely, which chapters were the most fun?

A: “The Locked Door” (about teen privacy): I just loved writing the lead-in for this one.

“No Jacket Required” (about teens refusing to wear jackets): This was fun because of all of the great comments I got from parents on this one.

Q: What is something that most people would be surprised to know about you?

A: I am an avid gymnastics fan – another passion of mine.  I was a gymnast.  I also choreographed routines for NCAA Division I teams, and I was a Level 10 judge for over 15 years.  Today, I still try to make it to local championship meets and, of course, I follow what our US girls are doing on TV.

Q: What advice would you give other writers who are in the process of writing their first book?

A: Don’t get discouraged and have the courage to allow other writers to critique your work.  Understand that when you’ve finished your book…your work is not done.  Prepare to market your book even if you’ve signed with a traditional publisher.  This process can be a daunting one if you are not aware that you have to put in just as much – if not more – time marketing as you did writing.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I’m always writing new features concerning children’s health and development, and I continue with the column each month.  I have plans to start a new column for empty nest folks and a possible second edition of LIONS and TIGERS and TEENS.

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LIONS and TIGERS and TEENS, published by Unlimited Publishing, is available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk as a paperback and ebook. To learn more about Myrna, visit her website at http://www.myrnahaskell.com.

 

Dancing at the Shame Prom: Sharing the Stories That Kept Us Small

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As a member of the WOW! (Women on Writing) Blog Tour Partnership Program (a community of bloggers who participate in doing book reviews and/or author interviews as part of Book Blog tours organized by WOW!) I had the opportunity to interview Amy Friedman on her contribution to the nonfiction anthology Dancing at the Shame Prom: Sharing the Stories that Kept Us Small. Amy is a longtime teacher, author, journalist, and editor, with writings ranging from fairy tales to bittersweet memoir. She shares her thoughts on shame, the power of fear and truth, and the transformative freedom of “speaking one’s truths aloud.”

This interview was originally published on Blogcritics at http://blogcritics.org/culture/article/interview-author-and-teacher-amy-friedman/  on New Year’s Day. It was scheduled to be posted on my book blog (www.notionsofagirl.wordpress.com) on January 11th, in coordination with a Blog Tour manager for WOW! (Women on Writing) but when I received Ms. Friedman’s answers during the holidays, I considered her message symbolic of the struggles we all go through when we straddle the expectations, the failures and the accomplishments of the previous year with our hopes and concerns for the new year.

Interviewer: Joanna Celeste

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Q: How were you approached for your contribution to the anthology Dancing at the Shame Prom: Sharing the Stories that Kept Us Small?

A: I’ve known [coeditors of the anthology] Amy [Ferris] and Hollye [Dexter] for a few years—Hollye took a memoir writing class with me a while back, and Amy and I met when I discovered there was another Amy F on Shewrites.com (in its earliest days, when only 40 or 50 people were involved in the site). At the time Amy’s Marrying George Clooney was on pre-order. I pre-ordered and fell in love with the book, which began a correspondence that has turned into a lasting friendship. I think we’re all mutual admirers of each other’s work, and because they knew a great deal about my memoir in progress at the time, they knew the subject matter I would likely deal with.

Q: What drew you to the project?

A: To be honest, it took me a while to figure out what precisely I would write, and for a while I thought I might have to write about the shame of not feeling shame—that sounds, well, perhaps preposterous, but I’m rebellious, and whenever people have tried to make me feel shame (as certainly happened during all the years I was married to a man in prison and certainly happened to the girls I raised, daughters of a prisoner). But shame permeates our world—I knew the book would resonate with a great many people, and the process of thinking about the subject led me on a long, difficult journey.

Q: Who is your target demographic for Dancing at the Shame Prom?

A: I never think about that question, not ever. I actually think it’s a dangerous question for writers to consider. Writers need to write those stories that knock at their hearts and heads and souls. They can’t worry about what others want to hear. So, well, I don’t. Besides, I’m always surprised by what resonates for people. Always surprised.

Q: Please take us through your process of writing [your piece in the anthology] “The Men Who Stayed Too Long.”

A: Oh, man, if I took you through the process, we’d be here for months. But in essence the process for everything I write begins more or less the same. I ponder the idea, I toss things out onto the page (handwritten—I write first drafts of everything by hand). I play. I read what I’ve written. I wonder about what on Earth I was thinking. I try to find the meaning inside the stories and snippets that appear on the page. For a short essay—2000 words or less—I don’t think a writer can contain more than one big idea, maybe one and a half ideas. I half-feel as if my essay for The Shame Prom fails because I think it tackles a few too many ideas. But I also have learned how to eventually let things go, so I won’t ponder that idea here.

Q: Everything in your essay felt like it dovetailed into one central idea. The major thing I walked away with from “The Men Who Stayed Too Long” was your concept that when we are ashamed of ourselves, we try to hide in our opposites, and in the fantasies of the person we wish we could be. How did that attitude affect your life and your sense of “self”?

A: I believe that’s true, and I’ve seen it manifested both in my life and in the lives of loved ones—we all, I think, imagine what perfection looks like. Take, for instance, imagining what the life of a perfect writer must be, how that person probably works, thinks, lives. It’s impossible not to think about it (in part interviews lead people down those paths, of course). I’ve long fantasized having the success of those writers who are everyday names, who write anything they wish and hand it over to an editor and the editor says, “Yes! Here’s your paycheck!” I lived (and published) in Canada for over twenty years and was not famous but was at least, well, a little known. When I was in my late 40s I moved back to the United States and suddenly I was a “nobody” as a writer, and it took me three or four years to climb out of the slough of despair (and shame) that created, to find my way back to writing because it’s what I love, what I do. I think there’s a constant struggle to look oneself in the eye and say, “This is who I am, and that’s just fine.” I don’t think that struggle ever ends; at least it hasn’t for me.

Q: By your definition, what is “normal”?

A: Ha! No such thing. By spending so many years so closely tied to prison, a little cynicism developed—and there are days “normal” frightens me. Sometimes I fear that if I were “normal” (whatever on Earth that is) I would be dull and uninterested in the world around me.

Honestly, I don’t know what normal is. I suspect everyone has a different definition–what seems “freakish” to one person might be perfectly normal to another, and vice versa.

Q: Among the signs of suicidal behavior are “excessive shame,” “withdrawing from people,” “feeling trapped, like there is no way out,” and “feeling hopeless.” How would you relate those feelings to your experiences of wishing to be someone else?

A: Well, I think people who wallow in a desire to be someone other than who they are usually wind up disappointed when they do not become that person—whether it’s a desire to look different, live differently, own more, know more, do more. Lack of acceptance of self can certainly lead to feeling hopeless, and there is nothing worse than that sense of hopelessness. I don’t know the cure. For me it’s always been fighting to be who I am and to find some way to be okay with that, and learning to surround myself with those who love me (and to shy away from those who do not).

Q: You wrote “What we see on the outside seldom even scratches the surface of an individual’s inner truths.” Please elaborate on this.

A: I think this probably is at the heart of the reason I’m a writer. I write to discover what I think, what I know, what I didn’t know I knew. Writing takes me to depths of understanding (of myself, particularly) in a way nothing else can (except perhaps meditation). I’ve been teaching memoir and personal essay for fifteen years, and if I’ve learned nothing else from this experience it’s that we never ever know at first glance (or the fifteenth) what’s going on inside a person’s head or heart. I believe in listening, closely, and in withholding judgment (every student I’ve ever taught has surprised me).

Q: You talked about the “transformative power of speaking your truths out loud.” How has speaking your truths out loud transformed you?

A: Absolutely—although I think I would amend that to say “writing truth” and I’ll amend that to add: It is vital to be open to what others say in response to your own truths, to listen with an open mind and open heart. But putting what I have to say out into the world has strengthened my sense of self. I know there’s more to say about this, but for now…

Q: What things were you once afraid of, but no longer?

A: I suspect I’ve been afraid of everything at some time or another, but the fascinating thing about fear is that once it’s gone, it’s gone. During the years I was involved with prison, I lived one big fear that all that I was working for—to get my husband released, to keep our family afloat, financially and emotionally—would come to nothing. And in a way that’s what happened, the whole dream exploded. And because I didn’t die, because I came out stronger and wiser and calmer, oddly, I think a lot of fear was burned up in that explosion.

I still sometimes fear rejection—that’s probably the biggest fear—that I’ll write something or say something or do something and receive in turn anger, cruelty, people turning away.

But here’s the thing: That happens, and still, I survive. Some days I hide under the blankets for hours and weep. Some days I can’t face the world. But a good long cry and those kinds of losses and sadnesses and terrors are oddly cleansing.

Q: What gave you the strength to share your truths with the world?

A: I have to say I was raised to be open and honest, by parents who spoke their truths. A vivid memory of youth: Many of my ancestors were lost in concentration camps, my paternal grandmother’s entire family wiped out in the War, my dad a POW during World War II. But when I was in high school, we had an exchange student at the school from Germany. My mom taught at our high school and one day Gaby (the exchange student’s name) came to my mom to ask if she could move in with our family (and out of the home she was staying in where some problems had arisen). My parents welcomed her with open arms, and years later I found out that they had taken much grief from many Jewish friends and family members still seething with anger at all Germans. But that was my parents. I’d seen my dad, an Atticus Finch type, stand up to angry neighbors who did not want an African American family to move onto our street in the early ’60s—I saw that the way to face the world was to face it honestly, and with strength, no matter the consequences.

And when I was 12 and writing came—my window to knowing what I thought, what I stood for and what I wanted to say—I came to see that writing is never any good unless it comes from those deepest and truest parts of ourselves.

Q: What do you know now that you wish you had known as a teenager?

A: What don’t I know now that I wish I’d known as a teenager is a better question. I suppose in a nutshell it would be that life would go on, no matter the angst and pain. But in some ways this question is just too hard—I’m not sure I know the answer. There is that old saw about wishing I were young again but knew everything I know now, but having just spent a good deal of time with my teenage nieces, I’m not sure that’s true. One of the beauties of their lives is the way they think they know everything already—I love that, and I love knowing all the things they’re going to learn, and learn, and learn…

Q: What would you say to someone who considers that keeping up the façade is safer than confessing who they really are, where sharing their true self or secrets might result in physical or emotional harm?

A: I would encourage, gently, that person to write. Honestly, that is what I do. And to meditate. I have done this. I raised two girls whose life in so many ways depended upon keeping up a façade—pretending their father wasn’t in prison because they had taken so much grief and rejection and cruelty from people for something over which they had no control—and throughout their lives I have tried to hold them close and teach them that they are not the people those who judge them believe them to be. One of them has found her way, one has not. I still hold out every imaginable hope.

Q: What are some of the resources for people who need a safe place to be themselves and speak their truths?

A: I think this depends—there are wondrous writing teachers around, and because I’m a writer, that’s where my mind takes me first. There are support groups. I think it’s important for people to find those who will help to nurture them and support them and listen to their truths, and to surround ourselves with those people. But this takes me back to the question of what I wish I had known as a teenager that I know now—I wish I’d known as a teenager that it is vital to surround oneself with those who love and respect us and to give wide berth to those who would judge us (and that those who judge us most harshly are usually merely projecting their own inadequacies and fears).

Q: We’ve talked about shame. Let’s explore the opposite. What are you the proudest of about yourself?

A: I’m proudest of the fact that I have followed my dream, that despite not having become “rich and famous” I am a writer still, a dream that began when I was 12 and from which I’ve never wavered, and that I’ve found my way to discovering how to make a living and to keep producing stories and books. I’m also proud of my teaching, and I’m proud of the people I’ve had a hand in raising—stepchildren (4), nieces and nephews, and some students.

Q: As a writer, what gives you the greatest joy?

A: My greatest joys come in those moments when I’m so deep inside a story, I am flowing, and I know I am onto something—it’s an indescribable sensation, but when I’m there, I know it, and it is, for me, the essence of joy and peace. That and going to the movies or for long walks with my husband who is the greatest imaginable partner and friend. And boogie boarding. I love boogie boarding and just about everything about the ocean.

Q: You have adapted some marvelous tales in your “Tell Me a Story” column, based on folk tales, fairy tales, and mythological stories. What drew you to that project?

A: Oh, alas, that’s a long-ish story. But the short version is this. I was working at The Whig Standard in Kingston, Ontario as a columnist (had been for nearly eight years), and I had a terrifically wonderful editor who was always open to new ideas. My dad was a newspaper junkie, so I grew up on newspapers—and I decided our paper needed something for kids. I told my editor I thought so and he sent me off to figure out what that should be. A librarian at the Kingston public library led me to stashes of old folktales and fairytales and myths and legends that people were forgetting, and she also led me to an amazing illustrator. I proposed the idea to Neil, my editor. He said, “Go for it,” and within weeks Jillian (my illustrator) and I were producing a column six days a week (in those days I wrote one story a week and solicited and edited the other five, but Jill illustrated all six). Within three months, ten Canadian papers had picked up the column, and a year later Universal Press Syndicate came to us wanting to syndicate the column in the United States. We started in 1992 and last month published story #1086 (they run in papers around the world). Jillian is retiring, but I’m still going, with a new illustrator beginning in February 2013, Meredith Johnson. Onward, upward. It’s been fascinating, frustrating, and always inspiring (and I’ve produced three CD audiobooks of the stories as well).

Q: Tell us about The Desperado’s Wife. What prompted you to share your story in its entirety now?

A: Ah, well, I’ve been working on the book for ten years, so it isn’t precisely now that I have been prompted. The book has been excerpted in several places over the years (in The New York Times as “Modern Love”, Salon.com and in a book by Katherine Tanney and Spike Gillespie called Stricken: 5,000 Stages of Grief), and my agent has been trying to sell it for a year or more. But when the Katie [Couric] show invited me to be a guest to talk about the subject and my book, I decided I was no longer going to wait for publishers to give me the green light, and so I have self-published the book and will be on the Katie show [on January 31, 2013]. I think it’s an important story—inspired in part by my longing for prisoners’ families to come out of the shadows, to not have to live in shame. That’s what I hope to talk about with Katie Couric.

Q: You have been teaching memoir for 20 years. What is your most memorable experience as a teacher?

A: I don’t know that there’s one “most memorable” experience as a teacher. The happiest moments are when students discover their voices, when they are able to dive more deeply inside their stories, when they realize—sometimes against their will—that they can tell a story they’ve been struggling to tell. I wish I could say the happiest moments are when students publish their work—and there is some satisfaction in seeing that happen. But I’m also frustrated by the whole publishing world because I think it is not often that truly good work is rewarded—sometimes there are too many other things (fame/hip-ness) involved in publishing decisions.

But I love teaching. I love seeing people making new discoveries about their stories.

Q: One of the success stories from your students is “Amy helped me to discover that a genuine writer did live inside of me and allowed me to grow and develop in an atmosphere truly free of judgment.” Many others speak of the environment you create, and the self-confidence you help foster. What is your teaching philosophy?

A: That’s it in a nutshell, to create an environment that both nurtures and pushes, that doesn’t coddle (I don’t try to be Mama), but that allows a writer to find his or her own way into a story, that doesn’t shut them down. I have a very particular workshop method I use (adapted from a choreographer) that allows only for questions of the writer. In other words, I don’t allow students to write each other’s stories but rather to open doors into the mind that might have been closed by asking who, what, when, where questions. I suppose the whole philosophy would be “don’t shut up anyone, inspire people to speak and discover what it is they have to say.”

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

A: Only this: It’s important to read and to write and to buy books. The publishing world is crumbling, but readers can keep it alive if they try.

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You may buy Amy’s memoir The Desperado’s Wife at her website and receive an autographed copy and bookmark if you place the order before January 15th. To learn more about the anthology Dancing at the Shame Prom: Sharing the Stories that Kept Us Small please check out their website.

The Spirits of Birds, Bears, Butterflies and All Those Other Wild Creatures

the spirit of birds

“One touch of Nature,” wrote William Shakespeare, “makes the whole world kin.” Why then, is man’s coexistence with the diverse creatures great and small with whom he shares the planet such a fragile – and often destructive – relationship? In his first book, The Spirits of Birds, Bears, Butterflies and All Those Other Wild Creatures, author Dennie Williams offers his perspectives on environmental preservation, interspecies communications, and the need to recognize that we’re all in this together.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: So tell us what your new book – and hopefully the first of many! – is all about.

A: This is a book of true to life nature tales emphasizing animal and bird interaction and communications with humans. The tales start with a short poem about Chickadees and end with a poetic tour through the Costa Rican jungle. The book opens with a prologue relating how I became fascinated with animals and birds through family influences and experiences. Then, in an introduction, it explains the significance of interactions and spiritual communications among birds, animals and other creatures with humans. Finally, it starts with the first of sixteen true stories or descriptive chapters of interesting interaction among people and birds and animals.

One of the critical issues facing the world today is the vital obligation to preserve and protect the environment. As a result of the momentum of destruction of nature world-wide, it will take generations, if ever, to repair all the damage. Hopefully the erosion, already generations old, will not continue at its present pace. But, whatever happens, children, teenagers and adults need to educate themselves as much as possible to the very soul of nature. This book and its short stories are a small and humble effort at catching the attention of as many readers as possible to the need to appreciate wildlife and the actuality that wild creatures can and do communicate their vital needs to people around them, even if they don’t listen or observe the many attempted interactive approaches to them by the non-human world.

Once people, at as early an age as possible, become educated to the needs of wild life, the less destructive they will be toward nature during their lifetimes, and perhaps they will even become devoted to help the causes of all living beings including those humans other than themselves. If the skill to appreciate nature and interact with wild creatures is honed at an early age, it becomes almost impossible not to take up or support environmental protection causes as one grows older.

Q: If there were a single quote in the book that summed up its takeaway value, what would it be?

A: “As kind as people are to animals, birds, fish and other living creatures, they have to think more about those creatures’ innate desires for freedom and independence. Above all, humans need empathy toward wild animals, birds and all other untamed critters. If more of them expressed it, nature could flourish in wider areas worldwide and man-made pollution disasters might decrease in kind. Can you imagine poisoning, torturing or intentionally running over a rabbit, squirrel or roadside crow? I can’t! Then how do corporations operated by people endlessly pollute the air, water and earth where wildlife lives?”

Q: And yet these practices not only continue to exist but also escalate. Are we sowing the seeds of our own destruction in our disregard for the planet and its non-human inhabitants?

A: Even as I was writing this book, my own concern for wildlife has grown so much that sometimes I have a very hard time reading, watching or listening to its incredible destruction during wide spread forest fires, hurricanes, oil spills, munitions explosions in war and after war or every day pollution of the air by nuclear plants, factories or just plain exhaust from hundreds of cars I pass by with my own car every week. And, yet for all of my working life I was a news reporter writing hundreds of stories of environmental disasters including investigative human health tales involving the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The environmental decimation of those wars, particularly from radiation dust caused by depleted uranium munitions, will impact on nature, wild creatures and humans in the Middle East for untold numbers of years. Radiation is hard if not impossible to eradicate and some say its hazards can last billions of years. And yet it seems news reports about its repercussions as well as the health effects of depleted uranium contamination and other huge environmental disasters focus on harm to people but not wild creatures, the earth or the oceans.

Q: Is there any bright spot we can draw to?

A: The nature tales in this book look largely upon the positive side of the relationships among people and wild creatures. They are lively, poetic and funny stories all with a focus on interaction, not always friendly, among people and birds and animals. Some of them involve my own experiences at all ages.

In order to put those stories and the book in perspective, I open up with my own family background, not as an ego trip, but to show how I very gradually became a kind of minor league nature fanatic. On the other hand, however, the first short story, “Blueberries, Butterflies and The Pig,” explains, how only at a late age, as a so called senior citizen, I finally realized there exists a spiritual, fascinating and inspiring interaction among humans and wild creatures, in this case butterflies, and people. Of course, that only occurs if the person already has a sensitive and regular appreciation of wild creatures. After some weeks of thinking about these butterfly experiences, it occurred to me that I and some close friends had a reservoir of experiences interacting with birds and animals.

Just as inspiring still was doing some extensive research on communications among humans and wild creatures and discovering it was not just my imagination. My thinking wasn’t craziness, it related to the real world! That research is part of the introduction to the short stories and is necessary to create credibility with the reader.

Q: So what inspired you to roll up your sleeves and put pen to paper…or fingers to the keyboard?

A: I was picking blueberries one beautiful, sunny day in a patch 10 or 12 miles from home, when a butterfly suddenly landed on my out stretched hand. I began showing it first to my wife then to several other pickers before I saw two young children, a boy and a girl, just outside the patch laughing and rolling down a grassy hill. Loudly, I asked them if they would like to see my pet butterfly and warned the boy to stop running toward me, as his curiosity overwhelmed him. He rushed on next to me and scared the butterfly 30 or 40 feet into the air.

“See what I told you!? You scared my pet butterfly away,” I exclaimed. But a second later, the boy exclaimed, “No, it’s on your ear!” I told the boy he must be mistaken. Then, suddenly, my wife appeared from out of the patch and said, I thought with sarcasm, “Yes, it’s on your ear.”

So I walked carefully over to the blueberry selling shack and asked the sales lady if she could see my butterfly. She confirmed its presence and quickly warned me that her two friendly dogs were approaching. Sure enough, one of them scared the butterfly up into the sky and away forever. Two days later, I was shocked when I remembered that about ten years earlier I had experienced another wild butterfly episode in Barnard, Vermont. There on a porch near a pond on a beautiful day, a local character took me by surprise and started telling me a wild tale. As he did, two white butterflies began flying just over his head with their flights matching the excitement of his tale. They did so until he finished and then quickly disappeared into the sky and over the pond.

Q: Would we be right to assume that you’re an animal lover?

A: Yes!

Q: When do you recall first taking such an interest in creatures of the wild?

A: I have followed the flights and eating habits of all sorts of birds on my feeders ever since I was a little boy. I loved seeing moose and bears in the forests of Canada and the Wild West.

Q: Did you work from a formal outline or did you allow the content to just flow from consciousness once you started to write?

A: In writing the book, I composed each story soon after it was told to me. Then I sent a copy to those being interviewed to make sure it was accurate. Then, I organized the investigation of the reality of interaction and communications among wild creatures and people. Next, I felt I needed to explain to the readers about my own life and family experiences as they related to my love of wild critters.

Q: How much research was involved in pulling all of the elements together?

A: My research on the Internet about interactions among people and all sorts of animals, birds and fish went on for months. Of particular help in proving the book’s thesis was the Internet’s YouTube which has dozens of videos showing wild creatures communicating and interacting with all sorts of people.

Q: Was it your style to do all of the research first or to start writing and do the research as you went along?

A: I did this research before I wrote the book to prove the existence of these extraordinary relationships among humans and the wild creatures of all sorts.

Q: By profession, you’re an investigative reporter. How different are the experiences of investigative reporting and the nuts and bolts of being an author of a book?

A: My investigative reporting for almost five decades was instrumental in writing the book because credibility, particularly involving this rare subject, is essential. Since the book involves short stories, the ability to write them was not that much different from checking out, interviewing and writing a news story.

Q: Who do you see as the book’s target demographic?

A: I believe the book is intriguing for most lovers of nature, but it is particularly inspiring for young adults because they need to learn that wild creatures can and do interact and communicate with people; and once they do, they may have more respect for preserving the environment, not only for themselves and other people, but for birds, bees, bears, butterflies and other beautiful wild critters.

Q: What impact did the development and writing of this book have on your own life? Do you feel that you see things differently now than you did before?

A: This nature book increased my appreciation of wild creatures tenfold because I had not the slightest idea that they had this people-inspiring capability to be so spiritual and friendly. As a result, I now often have trouble even thinking about swatting an annoying insect!

Q: What is the most amazing interaction you have ever heard about between humans and wild creatures?

A: I believe the most amazing interaction ever was the one shown on 60 Minutes in which Anderson Cooper followed “The Sharkman” into the ocean without being in a cage below South Africa and played a simple game of letting white sharks, the most dangerous of those creatures, bump them with their noses. After a couple of bumps, The Sharkman grabbed one of the shark’s fins and took a short ride. This is all on film!

Q: Why is it important to realize that wild creatures indeed interact and communicate in their own manners with humans?

A: As I hinted earlier, it is critical for humans to realize the communication skills of wild creatures because it makes them think that all environments need to be preserved, not only for us, but for animals, birds, fish and insects.

Q: How did you go about proving to yourself and, ultimately, to your future readers that these dynamics are critical to understand?

A: The content of the nature book itself deals with stories that prove this reality, and that is why I think the younger the reader, the better. So it was my investigation, leading up to the writing, that convinced me of the truth of what I was to compose. That probe is written into the book to convince others as well that these dynamics of nature are indeed critical to understand.

Q: How can readers benefit the most from this realization and which ones might benefit most?

A: If people begin to accept this inspiring reality, it means maybe we will have a remote chance of keeping the earth healthy and livable.

Q: Spirituality is an overarching theme throughout the book. What is your own definition of this state of being? Do you believe it exists in the animal kingdom or is it an anthropomorphic trait we ascribe to them?

A: Spirituality is the essence of keeping this thought forever in your mind and doing all you can possibly do to think of kindness and to think of helping others to include all living things including plants. And, indeed, spirituality is a reality for any living being desiring to communicate and preserve any other living being.

Q: It’s often said that our dogs understand more of what we’re saying to them than we understand about what they’re trying to say to us. Do you believe this same disconnect exists in the “wild” world?

A: There is no question that, like pet dogs, wild creatures frequently understand much more than people ever think they do. Although children with imaginations, sometimes know how pets and wild creatures communicate with them.

Q: Can hunters truly say they’re concerned about survival of critters in the wild when they are, in fact, hunting them?

A: Within the book, I describe the rather complicated ethical thoughts and actions good, competent and caring hunters have about killing animals and birds. American Indians taught some of them these lessons. We must remember that long ago, in order to survive, cavemen killed animals and hunted them, much as animals do to other creatures. During those times, however, it seemed from all the ancient tales that those ancient hunters only took down what they needed to survive. They didn’t go out and plant almost tamed pheasants in wooded areas, and then grab their shotguns to pursue the game they had just released.

Q: Environmental change, habitat destruction and human intervention have collectively contributed to the extinction of countless animals since the dawn of mankind. An alarming number of these have been within the past century. What’s your reaction when you encounter such statistics and what do you think we should be doing about it?

A: My reaction to this incredible destruction is partial disbelief that some people, many of them political leaders with powers to pass laws and enforce them, are incredibly egocentric, ignorant, thoughtless and cruel. Those leaders, aware of the potential disasters of the future, need to assemble in the United Nations or elsewhere, anywhere, and create a plan to stop the slow disintegration of our planet.

Q: Now that you’ve written your first book, what do you know now about the world of publishing that you didn’t know when you first began?

A: The writing, publishing and now the marketing of this nature book was indeed one of the toughest experiences of my life. Very, very few in the publishing business have any time at all to help a first-time author. Many agents and publishers don’t answer emails, phone calls or letters. For a first time author to get a book published and marketed they must be famous, infamous, rich or lucky beyond belief.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: My book plate of the future is empty and I would find it hard to believe I could ever create another one. But if the inspiration hits me hard enough, I will! It sure helps to have been an investigative reporter because the tasks involved with that job are often so difficult and nerve wracking that patience and determination are the only qualities allowing one to get all the tasks done.

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Readers can learn more about The Spirits of Birds, Bears, Butterflies and All Those Other Wild Creatures at http://birdscrittersbutterflies.webs.com/.