December 8, 2010

“She’s never been this late.”   Toni tells us that she stopped at Mary’s house and no one was there.  We called her cell and her landline.  Nothing.  We came within a whisper of being so frantic as to try Mary’s sister’s number when, lo and behold there is Mary at the door and full of smiles.  “I told you that I might be late because I was having lunch with Phyllis.”   Toni, Patty, and I should have been shamefaced that not one of us remembered, but we were not.  This momentary panic was an outright reflection of how much we care about each other.   The four of us have a single taproot that holds us together.  That is Patty’s metaphor.  We have grown as a writing foursome and as a sisterhood.

After this adrenalin jolt the meeting settled down to laughs and writing.  Patty shared her new genre, a Lilliputian-sized diary of her babysitting days with little Luke.   Its sketches and baby- to- Nani conversations are reminiscent of the HI and Lois comic strip.   Like Toni, Patty has an artistic gift.  What a treasure Patty will have to pass on to Luke and her other grandchildren.   Patty has added another grandchild to her collection, Little William Robert of Oregon. Congratulations to a four-time grandmother.    No doubt William Robert will take his place as a source of stories and have his own Nani Mini Diary. 

Stories, stories, stories.  Our meetings overflow with stories.  They are manna for us as writers.  We ingest them greedily, take them home after each meeting, and fill our notebooks with them.  We know there is no other way for a writer to go.  Abigail Thomas, whose book Thinking About Memoir we are currently reading, tells us :

Keep track of what you notice.  What you look at is part of who you are.  Keep an eye on yourself.  See where what you notice takes you.

Most likely it will take you to another story.

For next week we will read her last chapter titled Writing from Loss.    It is not as gloomy as the title might suggest.  I’ve just peeked at some of the sub-titles:

                Loss of Time

                Loss of Sleep

                Use It or Lose It

There are more, but we all get the idea.

As we are coming up to the Christmas season, Mary had a quick suggestion before we closed up for the afternoon …. “Instead of buying gifts for each other this year, why don’t we take the money and make a donation to the Susan B. Anthony Shelter for Abused Women?”  What a fantastic idea.

Thanks, Mary!

With that we did call it a day and scheduled another meeting for next week at Patty’s house.  See you there.






High ceilings bring lofty ideas.  We do some of our best work in my living room.  Like today.  We started with a listen ~  Nora Ephron’s interview on NPR.  She is SO over feeling bad about her neck. 

She’s got a new book out, I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections, about money, romance, divorce, and some other stuff she remembers.  We nod at her I’m-getting-old jokes and feel a joy more sweet than bitter. And then there’s the (last) chapter, The O Word, where she talks about aging……gratefully.  We Can Relate.

We amaze ourselves.   Somehow we are always able follow our conversational thread of dropped phrases, unfinished sentences, vague links and flimsy connections. Three-year-old Sam recites Billy Collin’s poetry from memory on YouTube ~ we can’t get enough so we watch his ‘performance’ of The Eagle by Alfred Lord “Tension.”.  Sam is appropriately dressed in his Superman outfit.  Take a look.   🙂


From there we’re off to Eli Wallach and how they filmed spaghetti westerns. A Leap.  We Know. But like Nora says, that’s our religion…get over it.

Truly, we are a writing group. We start by reading aloud a couple of short stories from EH, a guest who came by a while ago with a draft of his novel. EH is a prolific writer who gets what Nora says ~ “You do get to a certain point in life where you have to realistically, I think, understand that the days are getting shorter, and you can’t put things off thinking you’ll get to them someday. If you really want to do them, you better do them.”  So we talk about the stories, channel our inner Vonnegut and shoot off a few comments to EH.

Then we dive into Abigail Thomas.

Cover of "Thinking About Memoir (AARP)"
Cover of Thinking About Memoir (AARP)

Chapter Two, The Habit of Writing. She’s a muller, a stewer and a notebook keeper.  A Daily Scribbler.  Everything goes in –shopping lists, to-do jobs, what she sees, recipes, knitting patterns, overheard conversations, – Everything.  We like that she does what we do. A sure-fire way to keep us in the writing habit.  The chapter feels like pages from her diary and Abigail shows us what’s at stake….in all honesty…with humor.

Next week, Chapter Three: Memory.

It’s hilarious how we each remember things the others have forgotten.

Most of the time.


 Our Memories ~

Imperfect?  Maybe.

Conflicting?  Sometimes.

Useless?  Not on your life.


Toni 11/2010


Friday, October 8, 2010

At exactly 10 AM there are voices outside the door.  “Are you sure you have enough bear claws?”  As she enters, Mary’s tongue-in-cheek query zeroes in on my favorite indulgence.  It comes from the local Panera eatery/bakery and is a staple when the group meets at my apartment.  Mary adds a plate of homemade cookies to the table.  How could a rosemary-kissed orange thumbprint cookie Toscano be anything other than melt-in-your-mouth delicious!  Perhaps Mary will post the recipe on her blog if we ask her really politely.  Patty drops a basket of journals by her chair (I wonder what she has in mind to share today.)  Toni has two tiny pumpkins and a plastic spider that adds an October splash of color and a smile.  After a bit of chat, it is time to ease into writing talk.

Patty leans over and selects a journal from her collection.  She reads an entry that speaks to lists and how they reflect the trivia of our lives.  On the other hand, these same lists can point to a part of our lives to which we seldom pay attention.  Herein sits the gem.  In looking back at journal entries and jotted lists we can find topics for writing: a to-do list, a child’s schedule, even a grocery list can help us to muck around in the buried memories that lie there full of potential.  This journal business sets us to thinking about something that Abigail Thomas says in her book “Thinking about Memoir.”   In her opinion the word journal sounds and feels too serious.  A different word like diary is less daunting or officious.  She says on page 13 “A diary isn’t sacred.  Think of it as the written equivalent of singing in the shower.  I don’t care what I am writing and I don’t pay attention to language.  Most of what’s in there is boring, but it keeps me in the habit.  Writing doesn’t have to be good, not at first.”   So, there you have it…diary instead of journal.  I wonder if May Sarton’s “Journal of Solitude” emerged from her journal or her diary.

Just as we left Patty’s journal and our conversation on the terms journal versus diary, our friend Sayra popped in.

She is a Florida snowbird who used to be one of our teaching comrades.  After we spent time swapping book titles, she told us that she had had the opportunity to hear Carl Hiaasen speak.  I think the word entertain is more on the money.  He spoke and the audience laughed hysterically.  So if anyone has the chance to hear CH in person you are crazy if you pass up on the chance.  As you may suspect, discussion of writing gave way to talk of St. Augustine and its many wonders and cultural opportunities.

Sayra said her good-byes at 11:30.  She had to pick up Maia, her kindergarten granddaughter, at the bus stop.  Isn’t that what being a Mimi is all about?  We scheduled our next meeting with the promise to discuss Ch. 1 of Abigail Thomas’s book next week.


On yet another day of unrelenting rain, EH kayaks to our group, the first chapter of his novel in a plastic JCPenny bag. He is here for feedback. We are here to listen, be honest, helpful and not overly polite.   🙂

 Hey, we’re all amateurs at the table and we’re happy to have EH here, knock back a coffee and down a few scones.

EH, if you are reading this: NEWS FLASH! You are The Boss of your own story.  That’s the beauty of feedback.  You can take it or leave it.

EH reads his chapter aloud.  We all agree that the first chapter should introduce the character and the conflict. We talk about things like back story, flashbacks and internal monologue. We wonder about an opening scene overloaded with details.  What does the reader need to know now? What can wait until later? How best to give the character some kind of history? We brainstorm ways to layer the back story.  (Note to EH: I think the guy should just grab a cab, recognize the driver and reveal what happened in  conversation. A slick movie opener, eh?  Hmm, I wonder who’d play the taxi driver?) And then again, there’s T. C. Boyle, a master at having his characters muse internally. We’re intrigued by EH’s character. Will we be sympathetic towards him?  Maybe. Maybe not.  But we want to get inside his head at the pivotal moment when he makes his move.  And that’s in Chapter One.

Patty’s suggestion is a good one: Read.  Read. Read.  Read the authors that nail it every time.  Of course, we needed  Reader’s Little Helper (Amazon) to jog our collective memories of books that do that. And a look-see at my bookshelves.


The Hook

The first line of Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross grabs you and doesn’t let go. “When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn’t kill her himself.” Or Ann Patchett’s opener in Run – “Bernadette had been dead two weeks when her sisters showed up in Doyle’s living room asking for the statue back.”

The Dialogue

In The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Italian author Paolo Giordano introduces Alice by way of a crisp dialogue with her father that tells us what kind of guy he is.  Mystery writer Robert Parker opens his novels with dialogue; Janet Evanovich starts laugh-out-loud funny.

Story Order

In Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger thought she was starting at the beginning but it eventually turned out to be the middle.

The Pace – Elmore Leonard’s advice to writers is to leave out the parts that readers skip over. He says, “I’ll bet most readers don’t skip the dialogue.” (I don’t, do you?)

The Invitation

The Fourth Hand by John Irving begins –“Imagine a young man on his way to a less-than-thirty-second event – the loss of his left hand, long before he reached middle age.”

The Setting

Julia Glass begins Three Junes in Greece. You see the “predictable whiteness” and feel the “blanching heat” of “blinding, searing, somnolent, fossilized” Greece. In The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen writes about “the madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through.”

Learning from the best is a Good Thing. What books are on your Best Of list? Share them in a comment below so we can add them to ours.

We read plenty about revision and watch Ronnie and Patty regularly ‘murder their darlings’. (Update: The second set of twins in Patty’s book got the axe.) Stephen King said he got a scribbled comment that changed the way he revised forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”  (I tend to hoard words and prefer to avoid Extreme Editing.  Some of us like this revision thing more than others.) The Secret Miracle: The Novelists Handbook speaks to this and more.  It’s a roundtable of contemporary novelists who talk about writing. We told EH about Art Plotnik’s book, Spunk and Bite, and – both chock-full of wit and wisdom about language and style.

EH got plenty of feedback. He’s home now, revising. We want EH to write more.  And about that cab?  Make it a Toyota Prius taxi.


Toni 10/2010




September 24

THINKING ABOUT MEMOIR is a small treasure trove loaded with advice, observations, and idea prompts. We are looking forward to using this book to move us forward with our writing. Her style draws us into a relaxed, can-do state of mind, and we are anticipating some real help with her as our guide.

Before we knew it, September 24th rolled around and brought us back together for yet another of our celebrations. (Have you noticed how much time and emphasis we devote to celebrations??!!) This was a Biggie–Ronnie is 70 (and the most vibrant 70 year old I’ve ever known!).

Ours was the latest of many parties she’s enjoyed. We welcomed her with a Prosecco toast and a rousing “Happy birthday to you!” on piano, cello, and mariachi. The feast followed–fresh greens and a corn salad, tea sandwiches, root veggie chips, and Peaches ‘n Cream ice cream cake.(Perhaps this should be called a writing AND eating group?? We’ve always been multitaskers.) Naturally, we ate al fresco on Toni’s deck surrounded by birds, even a migrating hummer ( A Surprise!), and soft breezes. We laughed as Ronnie retold the experience of a first sleepover with Maia.  (We encouraged her to do a piece for the blog.). Patty is loving her new journaling–full sentences and small notebooks. We heard from Toni that we will have a guest reader (Another Surprise!) next week who wants feedback about his current book. I’m feeling guilty about not writing regularly for our blog, so I’ve started a list of short Erma Bombeckian topics and hope to write more often. We parted reluctantly at 5 PM after four hours in paradise.

After all, what’s the hurry, right??!!




August 18  at Toni’s house

‘Being with real people who warm us, who endorse and exalt our creativity, is essential to the flow of creative life. Otherwise we freeze…I’m not certain how many friends one needs, but definitely one or two who think your gift, whatever it may be, is the pan de cielo, the bread of heaven.’

 ……………………………………………Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Clarissa, make that three. Words We Women Write are lucky to have each other. Today, though, Ronnie isn’t here and the table feels too big.  We settle on my deck, plenty of hummers, finches and chickadees within reach.  Ice water all around and X-Treme Oat Bran Muffins that Patty said might be tastier with chocolate chips. (Ronnie, you didn’t miss a thing.) Oh, wait, we had blackberries- the kind explode in your mouth- from Mickey who has a patch down by the brook.  Then, there’s the usual talk before work:  movies, iPhones, plans, friends, Dr. Laura, meth labs, cholesterol, bed bugs in Times Square, Facebook, tomato hornworms, stress, real estate, the Fourth Estate. Beginnings and Endings.  Life Stuff.


Raise your glasses, people.  A Toast.   To our first pingback.  After we congratulate ourselves – we’re sure it’s  a Good Thing – we pull up Wiki to find out what a pingback is. A pingback is a way for Web authors to know when somebody links to one of their documents. This amazing WordPress site supports automatic pingbacks. All the links in an article can be pinged when the article is published. For example: An author of the blog at Site A writes a post that links to Site B. When Site B receives the notification signal, it automatically goes back to Site A to check for a live incoming link. If that link exists, the pingback is recorded.

So we hunt down pingbacks, pore over stats, read comments, reply to readers, add tags and just muck about.  Blog Housework.  Mary gives us legal size envelopes that, in a wonky kind of way, helps us hatch a plan. A New Giveaway! There’s more info coming.  Right Here on Words We Women Write. Bookmark this page ( or  add it to your toolbar.  Better yet, subscribe to an RSS feed and get all the Smokin’ Hot News delivered to your inbox.

Because we are so taken with Marion’s book, Realia, we rummage through the last chapter again.  She says to search for all the sentences beginning with I, circle them and rewrite at least two-thirds of them so that they begin with action.  We chew on that a bit. Phillip Lopate wrote The Art of the Personal Essay and he says the memoirist thinks the I is rich with meaning and specificity but that the reader who sees it for the first time in a new piece of writing sees “only a slender telephone pole standing in a sentence, trying to catch a few signals to send on.” This writer broke all the rules yesterday. She dares you to find a telephone pole in this piece.  🙂

Toni  8/18/10

August 13th at Patty’s House

We’re inside today even though it’s gorgeous out and the butterflies and hummingbirds are thrumming in and out of the butterfly bushes. What drove us in you ask? The green revolution, that’s what. Our Solar Hot Water Panels (Eco-Solar; and photovoltaic array  ( are getting shaded too much by our growing trees! Uh-oh. Who wants cold water and an electric bill?  That’s why we’re inside; the sounds of nature are being cut by buzz saws outside. Arborist Brian Boucher is whisking away a few Ash, Shagbark Hickory, and Maple trees.

Ronnie is a scholar. I know this first hand because she read my son-in-law Craig’s book cover to cover–The North Carolina Shore and Its Barrier Islands. As more and more homes are getting wiped out by natural forces we wish more people HAD read it. Right now she’s reading Why Poetry Matters and writing sonnets and sestinas! She’s at the immersion stage with the sestinas. She’s reading tons of them and getting the model inside her. Today she brought The Book of Yolek by Anthony Hecht, himself a witness to the Holocaust. For a copy and a review see this site:

Ronnie explained to us that with a sestina, the end words of the first stanza are repeated in a particular order throughout the poem. This sets up a sort of echo that makes the reader tilt back and forth between the past and the present, the beginning and the end. Gasp is what we did when we listened to Ronnie read this poem. Ronnie reminded those of us who’d had Latin that the word verse comes from vertere, to turn around. This sestina made us to that: we mentally turned around and reconsidered this monstrous time and it’s present day echoes yet again.

We finished our last Marion chapter. Lots to talk about.  We learned: 1. Spare is the writer’s ethic. 2. We’ve got to murder our darlings. 3. Beware the karmic sentences that come to us in the middle of the night.  It’s telling us what the piece is about, but it doesn’t need to be pounded in whole. 4. Heighten and add (This was tricky) H. and A. means to boil it down, distill it and then boil it down again.  5. Plaster the Gettysburg address to our walls. (Just in case some of us don’t have it handy, here’s a copy!*) That Abe sure gave a good speech.

Inspired by Abe L., Mary suggests that we try writing on the back of envelopes. She’s got a batch of Larry’s old business envelopes that she may donate to the cause. Wow. That’s a good exercise: we can practice murdering our sweets, tucking in, acting up and acting out, heightening and adding, but keep it all to one business-sized envelope.

Right on! Er, I mean, Write on! as Marion likes to inscribe on the t-shirts she gives to the students at the end of her class.

Other principles of editing and revising we learned this week include Indexing. This means that for every piece we should have a “slug,” a one-word title. For “stuff” that we excise during editing, we’re going to name it by the slug’s name and the word “outs.” So, murdered this part might be, but never say die!

More tips: easy on the word I. Use strong nouns and verbs and Very Strong adjectives, so strong we need to think of them as a spice, used sparingly least the reader’s appetite be deafened to what we’re saying. Be on the lookout for the telling detail. Marion’s example is haunting me still. See page 92 and 93 in Realia. And a final tip: Read your work aloud to someone who also has a paper copy.

After acknowledging that this is a book that will stay handy along with Ted Kooser and Art Plotnik’s, we decide that we’ll read and do Marion’s weekly writing assignments for a while. Here’s one way to get at them. We’re all going to subscribe to her blog too so we don’t miss anything.

Toni says that she couldn’t have gardened this season with out Margaret’s blog, Margaret being the sister of Marion’s in the sister project. We’re all feeling the same way about Marion, so extending our time with her pleases us.

For next time then, here are some of the ideas Marion prods us to consider and perhaps write five pages a day about include: How’s it work with sisters on holidays? Does she insist on her relish? Burn the turkey? Or worse, do everything perfectly? Marion continues, Not motivated yet? How about the topic of gifts and what they are. What gifts from your sister have been a recognition of who you both are?”

*Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


August 9, 2010

Marion, what will we do after we have dissected the last chapter, the last page, the last piece of advice from your book?

This past week we gathered for the shortest meeting we’ve had in many months.  Patty had to attend a road race in Litchfield, so we met at the Litchfield library.  We settled ourselves at a small table behind the stacks near the sunny windows.

Patty’s first words were, “Let’s talk about Marion’s last chapter at the next meeting when we are not so rushed.”  We all understood her concern.  So much fills the last chapter.  We need an expanse of time to linger over phrases like:

Murder your darlings.

Heighten and add.

If editors and stay-at home blog readers have one thing in common it’s that they bail out at the first sign of trouble, when the writing appears to be out of control.

The decision to postpone masks our angst over coming to the end of this book.  How will we find another that measures up?

We talk about Mary’s recent trip to Sweden.  She is still unpacking and putting finishing touches on her journal about Sweden and about Siv her pen pal of nearly fifty years.  No doubt, she will share some of it with our readers in the coming weeks.  Her past journals were filled with whimsy, snappy remarks, and descriptions of landscapes that whisk the reader to vistas of sunflowers in Tuscany, to the sounds ocean breezes and murmuring waves from a balcony in Puerto Rico, to the railing of an ocean liner pulling away from a port in the Mediterranean.  Anything she writes is a treat.

All our talk about Mary’s trip, Patty’s weeks at the Cape with her ever growing family, and Toni’s newspaper article about a woman found dead under a pile of laundry may sound like idle talk.  It is not.  Bits and pieces of just such talk will surface in stories, essays, poems, memoirs yet to be written.

Our meeting ends early as planned.   We pick up totes, the little wooden spatulas Mary brought us from Sweden, and head for our cars.

Next week, Patty will expound on our discussion of Marion’s Chapter Five….LIFE IN THE MORGUE.   See you back here.


June 21, 2010

A SmartBra, A Villanelle and An Invitation

Whether it’s Marion’s memoir piece that has a whistle-stopping figure, Mary’s snarky tale about someone named Victoria and her secret, or Ronnie’s lusty villanelle ……. it’s all about the structure (unlike this blog where things fly in all directions). And, yes- again- we can’t peel our eyes off Chapter Four in Realia. ( It’s full of that kind of stuff and we’ll chew on it some more next week.

Not that we aren’t easily distracted.  We start the group on my deck and John, a Whimsical- Renaissance- Gardener, stops by.  With one hand submerged in the fountain, he fiddles with the water flow while he tells us how he learned to surf in Maine – yesterday.  He walks off with a raspberry sorbet pop, leaving us to get about the business of writing.  After the conversation bounces from books to bulbs and beyond, we begin with – Our Blog – and the Importance of Being Photographed – in earnest. We hatch a plan for a photo shoot in July, so be sure to check out the About Us page for a look-see.  Patty is going to finesse our Daybook of What Happened at Writing Group onto the homepage.  We trust her, kind of.  She readily admits to throwing shoes in the middle of the night.  That’s her method for recalling dreams. She takes Marions’s advice about being kind to fragile connections very seriously. (Not surprising that she was never the most popular girl at the sleepover.)

Feedback- we get plenty from each other.  And not one of us has a piece that isn’t better for it.  It’s like the SmartBra™  that developers are working on. They ask themselves: What load is pulling the trunk forward? The feedback we give (and get) is what does the heavy lifting.  Marion says it’s important to have someone invested in your work and use their suggestions to edit. On page 73, she tells a story about a college president. Some of us thought it was a typo, others didn’t. See what you think.

I once knew a fine college president who, like all college presidents, was   besieged with manuscripts from alums who think that college presidents wait by the mailbox for every graduate’s next book.  A well-bred gentleman, he had a    standard handwritten response on good stationery.  The salutation:  “Thank you   for your recent manuscript.  I will lose no time is reading it.”

 I wonder how many of them got the joke.


.Ah, the villanelle.  We love Poetic License.  In fact, we each have our own personal one that we carry everywhere.  Today Ronnie brought Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle, One Art, to read aloud.  Then she read hers, Their Story, a memoir in poetic form.  Ronnie is the master of rewrite, and she knows how to make her piece sing.  Look for it on Ronnie’s Page.

And finally – The Invitation.  Come Write With Us. Take the Emily Dickinson Challenge on our home page.  Be published – Right Here – and win a book of poetry. What are you waiting for? So write already!



June 14, 2010

My deck looks out on raised beds overflowing with vegetables and flowers. Today they’re also planted with Emily Dickinson’s poetry taped to little cards designed by Ronnie. Last week Ronnie and I went to the New York Botanical Garden where Emily Dickinson’s 19th-century New England gardens were recreated as they would appear in Spring. More than a third of Dickinson’s poems and almost half of her letters mention plants and she treats all her plants as if they are human friends. At the botanical garden more than 30 storyboards and audio messages featuring her poems and excerpts from letters sprouted near flowers, trees, and bushes. Ronnie and I were  thrilled to be there. (Thanks to Doug Pickard we got there in one piece and didn’t get lost twixt Grand Central and the Bronx.)

So with a mini version of the NYBG show as inspiration, we began group with a list from Mary. (I want to all “lists” to Mary’s list of genres that makes me laugh and talk.)  Marion Roach Smith advises that stating what my piece is about in one sentence would help me structure my writing. Mary had the group alternately gasping and laughing with her one-sentence statements, each of seemed like the structure for yet another story from her life.  Mary’s not sure what she’ll do next, but it could be that one of those sentences will become, as Marion suggests, The spine upon which you build the rest of the body. One of the sentences was something like this: 132 nipples and they still couldn’t get me to eat. That sure grabbed my attention? The list of sentences was powerful. Stay tuned.

While we ate chicken salad and strawberry shortcake, we also digested a few more tips from Toni about the blog. Toni’s found a sort of kind of book that she borrows for a while and then returns to the library. (A body can absorb only so much tech stuff along with writing.) She’s unearthed how to do a calendar and how to figure out who’s been visiting the blog. We’re all going to try to add pictures and are figuring out that the “pages” of the blog are “static” and what that means for how we can add to them. Toni wants us to add to the About Us page; we agree that it makes sense to think about what we have to say about ourselves and our writing.

Toni also described how Huffington Post has asked for help in writing a five-word thank you for their Webby award. Recently we participated in a couple of six word memoir contests that got us laughing and compressing ideas—sort of like how Marion has us creating one sentence statements. So we’ll give this five-word contest a try.

I read a paper copy of her Letter to Linda. The group helped me see that the paragraph on Troglodyte troglodyte is there because of something I’ve yet to heave up out of the lagoon of memory.  So, albeit with a kick or two of resistance—I love this science stuff—I agreed to jettison this paragraph and use it to start an exploratory draft (thanks to William Zinsser for that concept: exploratory vs. compositional writing–; I’ll try to probe the connection, fragile though it may seem, between troglodytes and Linda’s story. (Marion is encouraging us to pursue these “fragile” connections.)

Another idea that came up was this: when we’re wrestling with a piece it’s helped in the past if we write on the topic in another genre. So I may try taking this memoir/profile piece into fiction—or maybe poetry. Donald Hall says that when he’s working with an idea he tries it out as prose, then poetry, and back again sometimes to help himself hone it down. (

We talked more about the importance of making sure we don’t neglect close study of each other’s writing. (Ronnie’s going to work on her villanelle and bring it back for the group to Really Ruminate Upon.)

We’re meeting on Monday at Toni’s at 11:30. Toni and I are playing piano and cello at 10:30 if anyone wants to arrive for Morning Music. We’re doing Sammartini and Saint-Saens. We’re all going to bring our writing and start on Chapter 4–The Barbie-Bodied Book. (; )We’re learning that we’re probably going to go back to earlier chapters and use them as a sieve for writing projects, but for now we’ll keep reading.

Two developments for our group: 1st: Like Ted Kooser and Art Plotnik, Marion Roach Smith has tugged at our minds and hearts and generated writing energy. 2nd: The blog has provided a platform and forced us to pay attention so as to learn something that’s just a bit hard in an area that’s just a bit off our comfort zone. While it’s created both positive and negative energy, it’s intriguing us. Both developments are helping us to notice things we might not have noticed. (Sort of like the telescope in the Phantom Tollbooth.)



On June 10th the Round Table meeting was just that–an early dinner around my new, round dining room table. The afternoon tornado watch and line of heavy thunderstorms had left behind sunshine; more sunshine came through my door at 5:30, led by Toni with salad fixings fresh from her garden (Yum!), multigrain bread fresh from her newest passion, the bread machine, and homemade lemon ice cream. I provided blueberry muffins and place settings a la Spode. So civilized. A bowl of cherries, deviled eggs, olives, fresh mozzarella, and pecorino to grate rounded (couldn’t resist!!) out the feast. Oops–I keep forgetting that this is about the writing group!! We were celebrating the six years since Toni and Patty’s retirement (13 for me and ??? for Ronnie), six years since I joined the writing group. (As champion brainstormers, we can think of almost anything to celebrate!) Much as we’d hoped to have sex with Roger (Ah, Marion, we love the chapter titles!), we got bogged down by blog business (Will I ever get my stuff on the right pages??) and an early curfew for Patty and Ronnie, who were headed to New York very early tomorrow. We are intrigued by the idea of using one sentence to define the structure of a book or piece of writing and the breaking down of that sentence to show structure. We will focus on that when we meet Monday at Patty’s. It sounds so simple–one sentence–but Marion has warned us–writing is hard work. We plan on having some fun with this challenge!

Mary 6/11/10

June 4, 2010

The Desperate House Scribes arrive with a flurry of hugs and kisses. I’ve already loaded the table with bear claws from Panera’s, mocha marble crunch from Back to Earth Natural Food Store, and grapes/watermelon from Stop and Shop. The smell of coffee fills the air of my small apartment.

We quickly settle down to blog talk.  Toni shares a tip: work your draft on the word program and then copy to the blog.  She has tried this and the steps are easy to follow.  I  am the least techy person, so I always need smaller steps.   In this case, I can do the copy and paste thing, so we can move along.   To continue with the blog theme, as a group we decide that we will keep comments short and have some fun with them.   We are all feeling a bit more comfy with the blog but there are always small glitches here and there that get talked out.

Mary is working through piles of photos that urge her to remember her past and to write.  The pics capture moments with her sister, her mom, and bring back even the sounds of Lar’s footsteps through the hall.  Once again, we are reminded that life is full of writing opportunities.

Patty has just come back East from her sister Linda’s huge retirement party.  Linda was percussionist for the symphony orchestra.  One can imagine the diversity of talent in all those friends that gathered for this celebration.  Stay tuned.  No doubt, Patty will put up many a post  introducing us to these eclectic and esoteric groups.  Amid all the music and excitement Patty tells us that she felt the presence of her long deceased parents.  This leads to family stories wherein will will lie the nuggets of future writing.  This is how it so often happens in a writing group… the talking sends the string of a story from place to place, from idea to idea.  Well, you get it.

And so this afternoon comes to a close.  We did not directly discuss Marion Roach Smith’s book this week, but her ideas are constantly referred to as we chat.  Next week the Desperate House Scribes  will start out with a discussion of Chapter 3 “Having Sex with Roger.”  How’s that for a grabber?


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May 24, 2010

 Wlcme Bck ! Ths blg thng’s addctve.  Drn lttle tme lft fr wrtng. I wonder how much time I can save if I disemvowel the whole entry.

Today was a day for fussing with a bazillion things.  Typical, actually, for us.  Here’s a bit of the trail we left this afternoon:  WordPress, blogging, NPR, Strunk and White, Spunk and Bite, odious critics, bubble coffee cake, writing in the dark, tags, posts, pages, death, Oprah, joy, gnatcatchers, doctors, inspiration ( you can’t wait for it, you have to go after it with a club – we read that somewhere), sisters, telling the story, veins, truths, books, sycamore fuzz, gardens, street parking, bird sex, self-awareness, writing with intent, lettuce, Fantasy Island… get the idea.  But, it’s all about The Writing. Really. It is.  If I may be so bold (and why not  :)), here’s my advice to you (and I’m sure the rest of the Desperate Housescribes agree) –   Find or start a writing group.  Donald Murray said the only writing group he would join is one that makes him want to keep writing. Our group does just that and it is impossibly joyous.  We meet weekly, pages (and laptops) in hand.  We listen, comment, and share – it puts you in a place of gratitude and that’s a really good place to be.  It is the toolbox, and heart, of our writing life.  We write with passion, take risks and yes, hoot and holler. Join a group that makes you want to write. You’ll be glad you did.

So, here’s what we do:

We always like to have a book that we are reading that will help us write better, inspire us, teach us the million little ways writers get things done.  A few of the books we’ve read are:  Spunk and Bite by Art Plotnik, In the Palm of Your Hand by Steve Kowit, Off the Page edited by Carole Burns, The Writer Within by Lary Bloom, The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser and Take Joy by Jane Yolen. Currently we are reading Marion Roach Smith’s book, Writing What You Know: Realia. (

We discuss a section each time we meet.

Devour it, savor it, read parts aloud, wish we’d written it. Smart words we try to apply to our writing, like learning to go small, to tell the precise tale.  Patty read her gnatcatcher piece; she says it’s her ‘Walmart’ – overstocked.  We agree that we need to write everything down, all that stuff we need to sift through, hold it still on the page while we figure it out. How do you find that one true sentence hiding in your piece unless you write all those paragraphs?  Be not afraid – edit ruthlessly, cut out the foofaraw. Small Moments. Realia. The Truth. Patty reminded us about Ralph Fletcher’s set pieces, the one-paragraph bursts that tell something very well.  We loved Marion’s chapter, Galileo in Walmart, so much, that we’re keeping it on the table for next week.

[Aside to Marion: Warning: Obit Addicts Ahead.  Mary whipped out a new one on the spot, fresh-clipped from the morning paper, before we even started the group hum.  She has keen eye for quirky.]

Like I said, this blog thing is addictive – and challenging.  We’re making progress. It’s slow, but steady, sometimes a little scabrous. An occasional eye or three glazes over as we try to move posts and add tags and generally undo the mess we make.  Want a visual?  Picture Mark Twain, bushy eyebrows arched, saying Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it? Sometimes, that is SO us.  Lots of fussing here and learning how-to and what-for and why-not. But, it’s all about the writing – just another venue, a different domain. And we love Marion because she says you may do any damn thing you like.  Thanks, Marion, we intend to.


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May 14

Our May 14 meeting at my new digs was a special event. One of our favorite authors, Owen Canfield, came for a coffee “klatch” with his four “groupies” (otherwise known as his bevy of beauties!). We gathered around a table loaded with fruit, biscuits, and strawberry muffins fresh from the oven. (I know, I know–it’s all about the writing, but man does not live by words alone.) Owen had us mesmerized as he recited favorite poems from his youth. We discovered shared passions for certain poems (one of mine, “Richard Corey”). Owen is a master storyteller, so it was a lively couple of hours before his Muse beckoned him back to finish his newspaper column. We bid him fond goodbyes and promised to meet again in Toni or Patty’s backyard paradise.

After Owen’s departure, we settled back down at the table, plucked grapes from the bowl, and enjoyed the limbic resonance of our partnership. (I love that limbic resonance!) We celebrated Ronnie’s recent first place win at the library’s poetry contest and the delight of hearing her read that poem about John in front of the audience on Wednesday night. (Put it on our blog, Ronnie!) Toni read her prose poem about growing lush Italian tomatoes from her father’s special seeds–tomatoes that freshen sweet memories of her dad. (Toni, all of your poetry is incredible and MUST find its way onto our blog. Nag, nag.)

Most of our conversation centered around the challenges of getting our blog up and running efficiently. (Thank you to Patty and Toni for getting us started.) We are all excited about this new pursuit, but it seems trickier than we’d imagined. Ronnie and I are “old school” and like to take pencils to paper, while Toni and Patty love their PC’s–thoroughly modern Millies! It’s the differences in life that make it interesting.

Our current writing book is REALIA by Marion Roach Smith. All four of us are loving its style and message–KISS and write, write, write–make it a habit because it is hard work but satisfying when you get it right.

So, on we go, delighting in each other’s company and vowing to find the time and place to establish a writing routine. That means I will have to give up my first passion–procrastination–and I’ve become so good at it, too. Sigh.



May 7

Today’s writing group starts out on my deck that overlooks the raised beds, wren house, and birdfeeders.  Talk and laughter come from both the deck and the yard.  The house wrens sing up a storm as they flit in and out of the license plate bird house. This is their second year here. Last summer they raised three sets of babies. Other activity of the feathered type: crows mob a hawk, redbelly, downy, and hairy woodpeckers alternate between the deck rail and the feeder. Chickadees sit in the pansy pot to the left of Toni’s head. White-throated sparrow belts out Oh Sweet CanadaCanadaCanada or Old Sam PeabobyPeabody–depending on your allegiance. A pair of mallards swim in the murky water atop the above-ground pool cover. They usually leave once we get the cover off. And the hummingbirds flit about!

Ah, and now on to the words we women write.

Keeping in mind that it’s not about the food, I do need to mention that I made and served my Muffintops (see This is a treat that masquerades as a muffins but is really a cookie. I also tried out a cookie that was fronting as a muffin.  The common element in both is an oil and butter substitute (Sunsweet’s Lighter Bake) and heavy doses of dark chocolate chips.

While we munch and sip tea and coffee we start out talking about our newest book on writing. We. Love. It. Writing What You Know:Realia by Marion Roach Smith.

So far this is tugging at our minds and hearts: Marion’s three rules of memoir: tell the truth, keep driving the story forward, find a context the reader relates to. Also: Write with intention. Be present and by that we’re understanding observe. We can’t make connections unless we’ve got stuff to which we’ve paid attention. Lead the wide-awake life. Capture the spot we’re we go aha! and then find the telling story that propels the story forward.

Have we spoken such to each other before? Have we read other writers who cover some of this before? Yes. Yes. BUT! we love Marion’s voice. We like the specific stories she uses to show us again these wisdoms. We like that we chuckle at how she explains.

An example: We’ve chewed over Emily Dickinson’s Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant–Sucess in Circuit lies…The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind. For years the idea of tell it at a slant has come up, sometimes when we’re writing creative nonfiction, sometimes with memoir, sometimes, for heaven’s sakes, with fiction! Today we realized that Marion has another slant on it (sorry guys). Who knows what it means? she asks and we hoot out loud. Just take something on and pursue it from your own point of view. From your own slant, lay it out “a truth at a time, slowly.” Will do we say.

We finish the group by going inside to my big table and getting two laptops out for a little update on what Toni and I learned at the Apple store Personal Project session about how to blog. We’re going to write on our pages and on the home blog, saving drafts as long as we want before putting them out there. We talked about how to use Facebook. We also oogled Margaret Roach’s blogs:,, and  If we didn’t already love this Marion Roach and her sister, this clinches it.

So, next week we’re at Mary’s and we’ve got Owen Canfield coming back to chat about his writing and what we’re up to.


42 thoughts on “Notebook

  1. Since, we’re about writing, more or less, sometimes more and sometimes less, and since we’ve been a group for years, and since we have “stuff” we’ve written and done “something” with it, and since some of this has given us great joy and held great sadness, let’s keep some type of chronicle of the group aspect of the whole thing. I don’t know if it will capture the joy of it all, but I think it might capture how we’ve happened to be so lucky as to have endured. And here I use the word endure in the finest sense of the word.


  2. What a hoot to read about our sessions in three distinct styles–puts me right back in my comfy chair at each of those meetings of the minds–ha! I started to remember how we came together as a group, so randomly if seen from the outside, but in reality, it was the stars aligning (I should stop reading my Zen calendar, huh??!) I have to shake my head in disbelief as I think of my luck. I was the missing link, the odd man out, a bit of a Lithuanian loner fresh from surviving 30 years in junior high/middle school (a zone meant to be experienced to understand), still in shock over surviving the aneurysm, in need of an anchor to bring joy into my retirement days. My Guardian Angel, already exhausted, found three incredible women to take me in and nurture me. Now, there’s a new slant on the same old fairy tale, and I finally got to be Cinderella!!! So what if I hadn’t been asked to the prom in high school–this was worth the wait. I’ll never figure out how or why I got to be the fourth of the Three Muskateers, but thanks for taking me in (or should I say “on” because I’ve been a handful!). Great advice, Toni–a writing group is a joy forever. Mary


    1. I like how each of us in turn, or out of turn mayhap, get taken on by the other three, depending on what needs doing, supporting, contorting, or some other -ing.


  3. Oh, you are sisters of the book, indeed. Thank you so much for the very fine boost to my book. I am humbled, honored, and utterly delighted by how much you are enjoying it, and how well you are utilizing it. And I will share with you the news–and this is a news break, sisters, since I have yet to post this even on my own blog–that I just sold it to a major NY publisher. More on that soon, except to say thank you. And write on.


    1. Marion,
      Bravo. Toni, Ronnie, Mary? Let’s do a field trip to Marion’s “opener” or whatever a book launch is called.


    2. Can you hear us Woo-Woo-ing? And here’s a newsbreak for you, sister….we are reading and re-reading and re-re-reading your words, at eyedropper pace, to savor it, try things, to make the book last. We are confident that you are going to write another – you know we are waiting. Finally, finally, this week, we getting to Have Sex with Roger.



    1. 6/13
      Wisecracks, wordplay and witticisms – The Algonquin Round Table pales alongside the Desperate Housescribes! and we’re not the ‘vicious circle”, we’re the delicious circle 🙂


  4. Patty’s garden and birds, Ronnie’s poetry tour, Doug’s biscuits, our laughter–it surely is heaven on earth. You three have kept me sane and capable of happiness in spite of my sadness, and I love you all. Mary


    1. Mary,
      Just to make you laugh, here’s a love and friendship quote I’ve got written in the inside cover of one of my old, old notebooks. (They make good reading (as you well know!) when I’m here at the computer showing up for writing time, doing BIC.)

      Here’s the quote:

      “Annie Bananie,
      My best friend,
      Said we’d be friends to the end.
      Made me brush my teeth with mud,
      Sign my name in cockroach blood.”


  5. So few words left…is there life after Realia? Time to unearth the books on the nightstand, but I wish Life in the Morgue was not the Final Chapter.


  6. Remind me, have we read and relished Poem Crazy-Freeing Your life with Words by Susan Wooldridge?
    Or…how about making a batch of hand-sewn books a la Emily and filling them.


    1. You and I have read and relished Poem Crazy. And nix on the handsewn books…that is SO winter. I have Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg (2007). It’s about memoir, dedicated to her students. “Memoir gives you the ability to plop down like the puddle that forms and spreads from the shattering glass of milk on the kitchen floor. You watch how the broken glass gleams from the electric light above. The form of memoir has leisure enough to examine this.” AND I have Telling True Stories ( 2007), a nonfiction writers’ guide fom the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, edited collection of essays from prominent journalists and writers. “Writing well is difficult, even excruciating, and demands courage, patience, humility, erudtion, savvy, wisdom, stubborness and aesthetic sense – all summoned at your lonely desk.”
      So, let’s pick up the pen and kick some ass. I’m just quoting Natalie, yes, that Natalie.


    1. Thanks, Emily. Is it THE Emily, come back? The Emily that said, “I find ecstasy in living–the mere sense of living is joy enough”?


  7. This is in response to Ronnie’s recap of our August 8th writing group at the Litchfield Library. Except for the fact that ideas, jokes, digressions, worries, more laughs, and the occasional mini-readings flow too fast and furious at our group sessions, it often occurs to me that we should tape ourselves so we can remember more of what we uncover together. Ronnie, you’re so right that what we say is fodder in one way or another for our writing. I’d add, for our living too.


  8. This is a thought on telephone poles and the pronoun I. Who else is going to use this word in regard to me, the writer? How else will I get a first-draft-chat-exploratory-draft going? I see the heavy-laden with I’s piece as a way to enter an idea. (I know you weren’t dissing the I, but this thought cropped up, so I cut it out and tossed it out.)

    Patty (9/21/10)


  9. This is reaction to the September 24th entry, way up there on the top of the page. We Women Who Write have discovered or re-learned something. It takes A LOT to feed a writer. When we’re asked where do you get your ideas we can now say We get them from the Peaches and Cream Ice Cream shop.


  10. Thanks, my writing buddies, for the super party. If anyone out there in Cyber Blog Land is having a 70th birthday, I wish you friends like mine, who will make your milestone a reason for rejoicing. Prosecco and Peaches and Cream Ice Cream Cake anyone? 🙂


  11. Ayn Rand is an old, old favorite of mine. Here’s her first line of “the Fountainhead.”

    “Howard Roark laughed.
    He stood naked at the edge of the cliff.”

    I think AR has a pretty nifty way of putting her protagonist out there. I wish I could pull one like that out of my bag of tricks.


    1. Ronnie–
      You and Francine Prose could help EH out with this first line business. Or was that Toni who found all the neat beginnings. Yes it was, move over Francine.


  12. Hey Ronnie,

    You got me thinking…what do we each favor? Diary is so sixteen. Journal is so Emily. Readers, weigh in!

    account, chronicle, daily record, daybook, journal, log, notebook, datebook, diary , ledger, logbook, memo, record, scrapbook, annals, autobiography, diary, memoir, narration, narrative, record, daily report, saga, story, tale, version, almanac, calendar, chronology, daily, gazette, minutes, observations, register, reminder, reminiscence.

    What would Carl Hiaasen call it? comics? scandal sheet? tabloid? rag?



    1. Welcome to our site….we do what we like and like what we do. And Thanks So Much!…Your comment is the icing on the cake. Do come often and join the conversation. Cheers!


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