Off-Topic

This post is not about writing, reading or publishing. At least not directly. But as a writer, I’m constantly looking for ways to be more efficient, especially with my keyboard and other electronics. And so I’m recommending the book Pogue’s Basics, by David Pogue. It’s full of keyboard shortcuts, as well as sections on web searching, text messaging, enhancing privacy and security, preserving and recovering files and other ways to make the best use of our phones and computers.

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Sure, a lot of this I already knew. And maybe you’re more computer savvy that I am. But even the few new ideas I’ve learned are well worth the price of the book.

The edition I have is a few years old (and so far, I haven’t seen any plans for an updated edition), so I had to translate some of the commands to newer versions of web browsers or applications. But that was easy and many of the tips are still perfectly current. Too many of these “helpful hints” books, on any subject, are full of ridiculous actions that I would never bother with, or are overwhelming. This book is clear, well-organized and above all, useful in the most immediately practical way. It’s not about becoming a computer expert. It’s more about helping the rest of us become the best end users we can be. Just my humble opinion.

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Oh, Now I Remember Why

spilled inkThere are very few markets these days that still allow paper submissions, still fewer that require them. Sometimes I forget why I’m so glad about this. But yesterday I submitted a flash fiction story to a market that only accepted paper, snail-mail submissions. What a chore! First, since the story was a one-page print-out, I folded it in thirds to fit into a number 10 envelope. But, the creases kept ending up in places that made the manuscript harder to read when it was opened up. So I did the re-folding four times before I got the look I wanted. Then, the number 10 envelopes I was preparing kept getting ink smudges on the back and I had to toss several of them out. It took me a while to realize I was laying them down on a page of ink-jet printed labels that had not quite dried. Sheesh. I finally got it all together and had to make a trip to the Post Office to drop it in the slot. No way was I going to trust any other form of drop-off for something as important as a manuscript. But then I worried: Gee, that address label seemed a little loose at the corner. Would it fall off before it got to its destination? At least this, being a one page submission, only needed a regular stamp. At least I didn’t have to stand in line at the PO to have it weighed for correct postage. The whole experience was a good reminder of why I’m so grateful that these days we largely deal in electronic submissions. I guess it’s sort of like “roughing it” in the wilderness from time to time. It sure makes one appreciate the comforts of the modern world.

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Books For Mother’s Day: Dear Mother: Letters of Tribute and Remembrance and In Celebration of Mothers

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Here is a book to treasure and to re-read again and again. It’s filled with every kind of emotion–grief, regret, guilt, but also connection, gratitude and hope. The stories touch on every religion from animism to Buddhism, or no religion at all. And of course, they portray every kind of mother. Every story made me wish I could have known each of them. Every story makes me wish I could meet its author. The writing in each essay is fresh, skilled, illuminating and evocative, even though they are short. I love it that what means most to these children are the small, shared moments, the bits of knowledge and advice somehow absorbed, the lessons in resilience and wisdom in adversity. Mainly I love the editor’s forward, when she writes, “We may remember words spoken in love and words spoken in anger, but words unspoken linger forever.”

 I did have to take the book in small doses, as each vignette moved me to tears, guilt and memories of my own. But I persisted. This experience is too good to miss. The recent death of Barbara Bush is inspiring so many tributes, all positive and meaningful. This book does the same for so many mothers never in the public eye. No matter what relationship you had with your mother, this is a book for everyone.

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Also there is the lovely collection edited by Trisha Faye. Either of these books are great gifts for mothers, mothers-to-be, or sons and daughters. I guess that includes everybody!

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Note to Self

Just finished reading Lie To Me, by J.T. Ellison. It was a pretty good page turner. But what I really appreciated was the author’s note that she added at the end of the novel. In it, she states, “I had a specific goal in mind with this story–stretch myself beyond my limits.” Of course, she meant stretching herself beyond her then-current limits as a writer. Seems to me that’s how I’m going to get anywhere in my own writing, or improve any skill: by stretching, even if ever so slightly, beyond what my abilities are right now. And then doing again the next day and the next.

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And for heaven’s sake, stop comparing myself to where other people are, or to where I wish I were. I may, however, compare myself to where I was yesterday. Or last year. Cuz I’m way better now, not coincidentally, at the very skills I’ve practiced. Imagine that!

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An Abundance of “Free Stuff”

Several times on this blog, I’ve mentioned what everybody here in town calls the “free table.”

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The Free Table behind our local library.

This is a table with a lovely roof, built by the local Boy Scouts, in back of the library where everyone is free to drop off or pick up books, magazines and other related items. Well, apparently our small town had the money to upgrade to new event furniture, because now, next to the “free table” are . . .

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It took a week or two, but they all found new homes. And not in a land fill or dumpster. Yay!

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A New Skill

contemplationI sit quietly at my desk, my mind purposely and contentedly blank. I am waiting in confidence for the next idea. This is a first for me. Normally, this office space is full of distractions. My mind jumps around. Pay that bill. Answer that invitation. Renew that library book. I’ve made attempts to deal with it by taking every single thing off the desk, putting it in a pile somewhere where I can’t see it, and only keeping the blank paper or notepad and pen in front of me. My mind wasn’t fooled by that trick. It persisted in wandering, making mental to-do lists or reliving past triumphs or humiliations. I’ve tried writing at the local library or coffee house. But, silly me, I always took along a book, “just in case.” Or I succumbed to people-watching. Or ran into somebody I know, a constant possibility in my small town.

No, the skill is to quiet the mind itself, no matter what else is going on. If I can do that, all the distractions around me will fade. It takes faith to do this. The temptation is to think, “well, nothing’s happening, so I may as well give it up for now and go make coffee.” It also takes courage. My inner critic doesn’t only judge my actual work. My inner moralist insists I should be “doing something,” not wasting time staring into space. I should be “keeping busy” or improving my life somehow. I am not alone in being subject to this judgmental attitude. That old saying “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” haunts a lot of us. So, it took some relearning to be able to sit quietly, without guilt or impatience, being comfortable ignoring all the other life tasks nagging for attention. Yet, it’s a necessary skill for a writer–or at least for me. But now that I’ve been able to do it once, I can do it again. Some call this meditation. Some call it contemplation. I call it writing.

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Wisdom All Around Us

gladys taberI was glad to see that Gladys Taber is still a popular author on Goodreads almost 30 years after her death I remember her long-running column in Woman’s Day Magazine called “Butternut Wisdom.” Looking back, I admire that the photo that accompanied the column was an honest portrait of a genial-looking, but rather dumpy woman. No air-brushing or Photo shopping employed. Okay, if I’m honest, I never actually read those columns, or any of her books or other work. But just the title “Butternut Wisdom” was evocative. On the other hand, most of us are captive audiences for another source of wisdom: car license plate holders. I saw one a few days ago that was meant for me, and perhaps for all writers. “Never Tell Me The Odds.”  Not that I want to be in denial, but I think in order to do what I do, it’s better for me not to know the odds against getting published, landing a book deal, becoming known as a writer outside my own circle of friends, and of course, making any money at all from my work. Writing is hard enough. Why open myself up to disheartening statistics? After all, somewhere out there, people are still getting book deals, reviews in major outlets and speaking gigs. As long as that’s still happening, there’s hope for me–and you.

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A Slower Pace Has It’s Place

A lot of inexperienced performers, especially me, have a tendency to hurry through their performance. This is due to nerves or anxiety. I do this even during my lessons. My teacher, Abram, is constantly urging me to “slow down.” I guess our minds subconsciously think, “get in, get out, before something bad happens.” Or, “hurry up and get it over with, so this uncomfortable feeling will go away.” But it more often leads to mistakes.

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More importantly, it spoils the composer’s, speechwriter’s, lyricist’s, or playwright’s vision and message. There’s a reason, after all, why composer’s add indications such as “legato” or “andantino” to their scores. They have a tempo in mind that is an integral part of the musical work they are composing. Any work in the performing arts has a mood or tone it’s trying to convey, and the pacing of the notes, scenes, or speeches contributes to the desired effect. The same is true of writing. There’s a difference between the delivery of a snappy one-liner and the delight of a stately, but deeply satisfying book like Amor Towles’ A Gentleman In Moscow.” A lot of stories need time to build, to develop, to lead the reader to the desired reaction. Charles Reade famously said, ” Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait.” I think we writers too often, in this era of breaking news, quick takes and fast cuts, of over-whelming and constant grabs for the consumer’s attention, tend to forget that our goal is to serve the story we’re writing, even if that means taking more time than we’re initially comfortable with. And I mean that in both senses: giving the story whatever time it needs to gel in our minds, and also taking longer to tell the story when we finally sit down to write, if that’s what is right for this particular work. Towles’ book is still selling briskly in hardcover, so even in the age of shortened attention spans, there’s a place for, even a yearning for, something of a more measured pace, which has room for depth of ideas, exploration of character, the building of an entire world, and a leisurely unfolding of events. I, myself, love flash fiction. But I also loved Towles’ book. Lucky us, we can have it all.

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And Then This Happened

perf anxAs I wrote in my last post, here I was, chugging merrily along, learning a new piece on the piano. And making progress. Then, suddenly, it all went haywire. Passages I had gotten “down” suddenly became impossible to play. Phrases that I had been playing unfailingly suddenly became a mishmash of mistakes. I couldn’t get it right, not at home, not during my lesson. It was still my fingers. Still the standard keyboard. After thinking it over, I realized what had changed. I had committed to performing in the music school’s upcoming adult recital. Just making that commitment had triggered performance anxiety, that, paradoxically, wrecked my performance–months ahead of the actual event!

As far as I can tell, all performers (including sports figures and those in any testing situation) go through this. I’ve read or heard tales of actors throwing up before going onstage each time. In BBC Music Magazine, Soviet pianist Emil Gilels is quoted as calling the walk onto stage the “journey to Golgotha.” Part of training is finding ways of combating the crippling effects of stage fright, or, even better, finding ways to make it work to one’s advantage.

My wonderful piano teacher and coach, Abram, had a few suggestions. “Think of yourself as “sharing” this wonderful music with others, rather than performing.” And, “focus on the music, not on yourself.”

Writers can also suffer from “performance anxiety” which sometimes takes the form of “writer’s block.” We writers at least get to make our mistakes in private. They’re called first (or sometimes, tenth) drafts. When we finally send out work out to our audience (reader, editor, whoever) we’ve had time to polish all the mistakes out of the “performance” that we now present to others. Yet, just as even the best musicians, despite hours and hours of practice, will occasionally make glaring errors on stage, sometimes the instant we hit “send” we discover previously unnoticed and egregious faults in our manuscript. The well-schooled musician will recover and carry on, just as the champion tennis player will immediately forget the last misplaced shot and focus on making the next shot a winner. So, instead of wallowing in chagrin, we just chalk it up to “oops” and get on with our next masterpiece. As the saying goes, we don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good, or stop us from continuing on our chosen path. At least I don’t, and I hope you don’t either.

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No Secrets

pianoI had my weekly piano lesson yesterday. My teacher and I are preparing a piece for the music school’s recital in April. Abram is a perfect teacher. He knows just when to push, when to correct, when to praise. Yesterday we worked out the best fingering for several passages. He also suggested learning the last passage first, then, working backwards, adding each passage in turn until I get to the beginning. These techniques help. But after the lesson is over, it’s up to me to practice the fingering endlessly, until the muscle memory for that phrase has been fixed in my brain. It’s up to me to practice each passage until they flow smoothly from one to another. His suggestions can give me a boost, but in the end it’s up to me to do the necessary work.

We writers also are always looking for ways to find an advantage–for tricks, tips, information that will help open a door. And so we band together to share them: a new agent, reviews of editing software, the best place to get head shots. We also swap manuscripts. support and encouragement. But in the end, it’s up to each of us, on our own, to come up with ideas, flesh them out, find our own voice, see it through to the end, revise it until it’s the best we can do, and have the guts to put it out there. Sometimes it’s hard to face that fact. So we join more groups, workshop the same fifty pages over and over, read one more writing manual. There is a third way, however. You write only for yourself, for your own satisfaction, or self-illumination, with no other audience in mind. It’s sort of the equivalent of playing the piano pieces you already know and love, with never a thought of performing them for someone else. Either choice is perfectly okay. There’s a lot to be said for just doing what you love, whether or not it’s aimed at anything other than self-expression in the moment. For me, though, it’s always about getting better, about the next challenge. Committing to a recital, like committing to submit, is one more way to keep me focused on that goal.

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