Saturday, February 22, 2014

WRITE to the Heart of the Matter: Get inspired!

All writers need inspiration.  Sometimes we need a little prodding, perhaps a little challenge.

I have been part of the Serious Scribes writer's group for over eight years. We meet, critique, share stories and do our best to inspire the writer in each of us.  Of the four current members, we write on diverse genres yet enjoy the progress each of us makes.

At one of the last meetings, our leader gave each of us an assignment.  We blindly chose a sheet of paper from her. Written upon the one I selected were the words, "If you can guess what is in my pocket, you can have it."  We were instructed to use this writing prompt as the first sentence of our writing and  return to the next meeting with a story that had a beginning, a middle and an end.

I had no idea what to write.  I wanted to return to writing my book, not something else. I got up from my writing table in the kitchen to walk around and consider it.  When I returned my dog, Hermione, pictured above with Huck in the background, looked like she was prepared to take over the writing for me.

I picked up Hermione, took my seat and decided it was time to write. The sentence made me think of some things I didn't want to write about, but them I remembered my Dad.  When my Dad came home from work, he would shake the coins in his pockets and say, "If you can guess how much money is in my hand, you can have it."

I loved to guess but never guessed correctly.  I came close a few times. He was happy to get the jingle jangle of the coins out of his pants.

With that memory intact, I sat and wrote this short story. Not autobiographical, but inspired.


If you can guess what I have in my pocket, you can have it

“If you can guess what I have in my pocket, you can have it.” My mother stuck her hand in her apron pocket.  She smiled and jiggled her hand.  There was no noise.

My friend Jamie looked in awe and circled around her.  I had seen this trick before, but this time I had no idea what she would have that didn’t make a sound. 

“Well, it can’t be coins because I would hear something.”  I sat at the kitchen table, placed my elbows on the edge and rested my chin on my hands. “And, it can’t be marbles because I would hear that, too.”
Jamie continued to circle my mother. “Is it a million dollar bill? Is it a toad? Is it my homework assignment I lost last week?”

“No, no and no.”  Mom smiled and watched as Jamie shrugged in frustration.
“I was really hoping for the million dollars.   Then I won’t have to go to school and take the test tomorrow,” said Jamie.

“A million dollar bill would be nice, but it won’t ­­­solve all of your problems. And, what would you two ten year old girls do with a million dollars anyway?”

“We would figure out something!” Jamie and I answered in unison.

“A million dollars would have been good.  But I still want to try to figure it out.” I loved the mystery­, I loved the intrigue, and I loved the moment between knowing and not knowing. ­“Can we ask questions about it?” I asked.

“Well, perhaps a couple…ok, three, only three questions and only three guesses.” Mom turned and stirred the water and noodles in the pot. It had not yet returned to boiling.

“So, where did you go today?”

Mom turned and said, “What a funny question…let’s see.  I visited Mrs. Green next door, I stopped at the market for milk and I mailed the letter to your grandmother.”

“Hmmm, that is not a lot to work from.”

“Not a lot from which to work.” Mom was a grammar perfectionist.  I was lucky I had a subject and a verb in my sentences.

“Hmmm.”  I looked around the kitchen trying to find any clue.  No sound, a trip to the market and the mailbox.  What could my mother have in her pocket?  She could be so sneaky sometimes. “So, you didn’t go to the department store, you didn’t go to the basement, and you didn’t visit Dad at work, correct?” I thought I was as smart and observant as Sherlock Holmes.

“Correct. Well, you have asked two questions, although that last one should almost count for two.” Mom brushed her hair back with her wrist and set the spoon on the counter top. “Only one question left.”

Mom put her hand in the pocket again, and then twirled around the kitchen.  Again, no noise except the squeak of her shoes on the floor. “And you only have five more minutes to guess.  This secret won’t keep forever. I am setting the timer.”

­­­­Jamie and I groaned as we knew our time was limited. As the timer clicked to 4:55 minutes remaining, my brother Mark walked into kitchen.  “Hey,” called Mark as he breezed past Mom.
“If you can guess what I have in my pocket, you can have it.” Mom smiled at Mark who stopped abruptly.

"Mom, I am too old to play your stupid games.  And, if it isn’t a million dollars, I just don’t care to play.” Mark stomped out of the room.

Mom turned to me and Jamie.  She smiled but it was not the same smile as before, it was a forced smile.

She walked to the pantry and I thought I saw tears brim in her eyes. I looked at Jamie and I knew Jamie understood. We were quiet for a few minutes as Mom randomly moved items from one shelf to another shelf and then back again to where it was originally.  Then I understood just how important the game was.

“Mom, are you ready for my last question?  I think I have a good one!”

Mom ambled back slowly to the stove.  She breathed in deeply and squared her shoulders. “Ok, shoot.  I am ready for the last question.”

“Is the something in your pocket something you love?” I asked. As I said it, the timer buzzed loudly startling each of us.

Mom pressed the button to silence the buzzer. She reached into her pocket and slowly pulled her hand out.

“Roberta, you are the absolutely the best at this game. You are correct.”  Mom flipped her hand over to show us a picture of me as a baby. Underneath the photograph was a lottery ticket.
“It may not be a million dollars, it may be more, it may be less,” Mom said as she clasped the picture and the ticket into my hand. “And, I thought what was in my pocket was something I loved, but your spirit and willingness to play is priceless, and I love you more each hour of every day.” She hugged me and I hugged her back tightly. 

“You know, Mom.  I may not always wear an apron but I think the pocket game is the best game ever.”

Mark popped his head back into the kitchen.  “Did I hear more than a million dollars?”
I placed both hands over my picture and ticket. “You heard wrong, Mark.  This game is priceless. I can’t wait to play it with my children and grandchildren.”

Mark looked from me, to Jamie, and to Mom trying to understand. Mom smiled again, enjoying the confused look on his face.

“If you can guess what I have in my other pocket, you can have it.”

Inspiration can come from anywhere...from unexpected writing prompts and dogs.  Use sentences, comments and sights to inspire you to write something you didn't expect.  The journey is worth it.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Who is Edward Russell?

Who is Edward Russell? I don’t know, but I certainly want to find out.

The question arose yesterday when my daughter and I went to the Basha Library  to ­­­check out the latest “Friends of the Chandler Library”  50% off book sale.  My daughter found 24 hardcover children’s books for $14, ranging from Winnie the Pooh to Holes. These books build the foundation of her elementary classroom library as she finishes her education degree.

I didn’t plan to buy anything, that is, until I walked up to one shelving unit.  Here I should mention, that in the past month, I read Wine for Dummies and currently have downloaded the ebook, Vino Argentino: An Insider's Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina. Last November I traveled there sampling the food and wine from Buenos Aires to La Pampa to Mendoza.  After I returned home, I daydreamed about being part of the wine business.  After I retire, if my writing plans aren’t as fulfilling as I expect, why not consider learning about wines around the world?  Who doesn’t need a backup, backup plan?  This daydream inspired and carried me through the last few weeks though I had no intention to act upon the idea.

That is, until I saw the shelving unit.  There among the cast offs were books and books about wine.  Now the last thing I need is to store more books in my home. I already have collected more books than any person should.  But, like a moth to the flame, I was drawn. I picked up one book, then another. I looked at beautiful color photographs.  I analyzed dates and worn edges.  I flipped pages and reviewed tables of content. I was not familiar with the authors but judged my choices by year and content. I was smitten.

The books were marked at $3.00 each.  The lightest weighed about a pound, the heaviest at least five. Initially I chose three, then a total of four.  For $5.00, I had my hands full of the history of wine.

My selections were: Wines of California by Robert Lawrence Balzer,  Moët & Chandon, Impressions of France by Pietro Francesco Mele (printed in Italy by Graphicolor), Wines of North America by Bernard Moore, and The Great Book of Wine by Edita Lausanne.  I carried them to my car and, later, into my house.  I believed my weightlifting was done for the day.
In the afternoon, I opened the Wines of California book and noticed there was writing and drawing on the first page.  The drawing is a bunch of grapes hanging from a vine and below is written, as best I can decipher:

“Tendrils of California wine for my good friend, Ed Russell. 
Robert Lawrence Balzer, November 10, 1978.”

When I saw the signature, I had to check the front cover, and, yes, this book was signed by the author.  This merited some investigation.  So, I googled Balzer’s name. Turns out he was an influential wine writer (wine columnist for The Los Angeles Times from 1964 to 1995), educator (he led wine tours and taught wine classes into his 90s), and a champion of California wines. Balzer organized the New York Wine Tasting of 1973 which was a precursor to the matching of French and Californian wine at the Judgment of Paris. The Judgment of Paris was the basis for the film Bottleshock starring Alan Rickman.

I checked the front pages of the other books to see if there were any author signatures.  Property of Edward Russell was written on the inside cover of Wines of North America.

Who was Edward? Wine lover, friend of Robert Lawrence Balzer? Retiree, book donor to the library?  Someone to inspire me to read more about wine?

With a few simple clicks on my computer, I found Robert Lawrence Balzer.  With another few clicks, I discovered twelve people named Edward Russell in Arizona…one in Gilbert, Mesa, Sun Lakes and other cities farther away from Basha Library. 

Who is Edward Russell? I don’t know, but I hope to find out.

Information retrieved from

Monday, January 28, 2013

WRITE to the Heart of the Matter: Biography

Sissy Spacek
my extraordinary ordinary life
by Sissy Spacek with Maryanne Vollers

First confession:  I have never seen the movie "Carrie" in its entirety.

Second confession: Before I read this book, I knew nothing about Sissy Spacek's real life.

So, why did I decide to listen to the audio version of my extraordinary ordinary life? Certainly because I love to read biographies and listen to autobiographies read by the author even more. Yet I can pinpoint at least three more reasons why I was intrigued.

1) I loved Sissy in the movie A Coal Miner's Daughter.  I liked Tommy Lee Jones, too, but was fascinated by Spacek's performance.

2) I loved Sissy in the movie A Blast from the Past. She is not the lead in this movie, that billing goes to Brendan Fraser and Alicia Silverstone.  But, Spacek's scenes are some of the best as she portrays the memorable Helen Webber. In particular, she shines when the family watches The Honeymooners and during her son Adam's 30th birthday party. It is a great family film.

3) I saw Sissy on the red carpet for an event this past year, and she was accompanied by her daughter. During the brief interview, the ease and love between the two was evident. Surely someone who was a talented actress and had raised a beautiful daughter would write a book I would want to read.

I was not disappointed. There were times as I listened to the book I felt that Spacek wrote specifically for me.  In the second chapter, she details her genealogy, one of my lifelong passions.  Spacek's knowledge of her family tree would amaze most personal historians. She definitely worked her way right into my heart as she wrote:
"Daddy was proud of his ancestry and was a great storyteller. His people were simply, hardworking farmers and merchants who knew the value of a zlaty and felt a strong, almost mystical connection to the land.
The first to arrive in America was my great grandfather, Frantisek Jan Spacek II, who was thirteen in 1866 when he left his family's farm in Moravia to sail to Texas...In 1875, Frantisek married Julia Gloeckner, whom he had met on the long passage from Moravia to Texas. Frantisek flourished in the new world. He opened a grocery store and saloon in Fayetteville, and at one point he had a six-hundred-acre farm, rental properties, a livery stable, and beer agency (Spacek, pg. 21).
If genealogy is not your thing, don't give up on this book. Keep reading.  This critical chapter shows Spacek knows who she is and where she wants to go. These people, their stories and places influenced Sissy and her choices throughout her life.

Her retrospective is so well written I believe I walked her path with her.  I vividly see her brothers, her experiences in New York with her cousin Rip Torn, and her view of all of the sets on which she stepped foot.  One of the most poignant moments is when she describes when her mother, who is suffering from cancer, is forced to leave the family home for the last time. Spacek writes:
Daddy told us about the morning he took her (Sissy's mother) to the hospital, when it was clear that was where she needed to be. My father was saying,"C'mon, Gin. It's time to go, sweetie." But she kept walking around the house, looking at everything. This was the place she'd loved best. This was where so much had happened. All those chickens she'd fried and the scrapes she'd bandaged. Susan and Peggy and Imogene at the kitchen table drinking coffee, hearing the morning school bell and rushing us into the car and off to school. The laundry she'd hung out while the marching band played...and all those sugar sandwiches. I'll bet that's what was flooding through her mind that morning, all those sweet memories. She stood in the living room for a long time, Daddy said, just taking it all in. Then she took a breath and turned to go.
All her life, my mother had believed that our minds are the builders of the universe (Spacek, pg. 207).
Spacek opens up her heart and shares every moment of her life from that perspective.  Family historians can learn from Spacek that your book does not have to be a chronological diary to tell the whole story.  It means paring down the diary to the heart of the matter. Spacek excels at it.

Sidenote: I have watched A Coal Miner's Daughter many times, and I loved the actor who played her father.  The image Loretta sees of him coming over the hill only to fade into the image of her neighbor remains embedded in my mind.  I never realized that the actor who so impressed me was Levon Helm.  I thought I was the only one who didn't know this until I shared the story with my future son-in-law.  When I mentioned it to  him, the look on his face told me I was not alone. Neither of us had connected the dots from the actor to the famous musician and songwriter.  That insight and many more make Spacek's book a must read for 2013.

Monday, September 17, 2012

WRITE To the Heart of the Matter: Have You Read Any Good First Sentences Lately?

Wired for Story
The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence
by Lisa Cron

Anyone who has heard me speak about writing know my passion for first sentences.  First sentence do not a book, chapter or paragraph make, but it can be the deal breaker if it puts the reader to sleep.

Imagine my delight when I saw the title for this new book by Lisa Cron.  Like any good reader, I flipped to the back cover, skipped the endorsements, and checked out the book details. Not only was there going to be action on first sentences, there was also a promise to "ignite the brain's hardwired desire to learn what happens next."

I turned to the first page and read:

"In the second it takes you to read this first sentence, your senses are showering you with over 11,000,000 pieces of information. Your conscious mind is capable of registering about forty of them."
I fell in love with the first sentence and the layout of the page spread.  The left page showed THE COGNITIVE SECRET..."We think in story, which allows us to envision the future," and THE STORY SECRET..."From the very first sentence, the reader must want to know what happens next."

Above the chapter heading was the Flannery O'Connor quote: "I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one."

Every chapter follows the same format. Cron writes what every writer needs to know and shares in a way every writer wants to write. I knew I was in the right place and reading the right book

Looks like my Christmas gift list for my writer just grew a little bit longer.

To find out more about Cron, visit

Monday, September 10, 2012

WRITE to the Heart of the Matter: A Memoir of Art and Creation

Just Kids
by Patti Smith

I love to read memoirs, biographies, and, of course, family histories.  I am irresistibly drawn to hear each person's story.  I share in their struggles, their day to day activities and enjoy seeing how they overcome their obstacles.  Of course it is easier when you know their life will be a great success, especially since they have written a book about it.

When I decided to read, or rather listen to, Patti Smith's book "Just Kids," I knew nothing of her life's struggles and successes.  I knew she was a songwriter/musician. I never listened to her music. If you had asked me the title of one of her songs, I wouldn't have been able to name one. As I started her book, I did not know what to expect.

I discovered Patti Smith is brutally honest.  About her life, her loves and her choices.  I also would have never guessed that this rock star was so well read. Now I know she is truly a poet and performer. What I discovered about her put me in awe of her accomplishments.

Patti's book tells of her life, focusing on a story of love and creativity. While  I knew little about her, I knew absolutely nothing about the other half of the "Just Kids" title, Robert Maplethorpe.  Robert and Patti journeyed through life creating art, being art and living art.  They struggled together, lived together and developed their talents in parallel careers. Their dedication to art and to each other outlasted their time together. As I said, it is a story of love, but that does not make it a love story, at least not in the conventional sense.

I was familiar with the Chelsea Hotel, and it turns out Patti lived there for years. The parade of celebrities who passed through this hotel made it the epicenter of Patti's link to the artistic world she so desperately sought after for years. From Jimi Hendrix to Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, many of the people who frequented the Chelsea Hotel also influenced Patti and helped her along the way. 

Struggles were plenty. And, Robert's creations are not a match for my artistic taste. There are times I wanted to yell at him to stop and change his direction, but there was no going back for him. Frustrating, just like real life. Yet, I could not stop listening to the book  What makes this story impossible to walk away from? The three human circumstances which drew me into the vortex are:

  1. How they bonded and lived for art and, in turn, inspired each other to live their dream.
  2. How they grew their art and developed themselves into artists. 
  3. How they tried and continued and failed and tried and continued again and again before any true success came their way.
I still hear their voices clearly in my mind. Patti's powerful yet simple words haunt and hang in the air. The book made me believe I was there and saw it all happen. They were "Just Kids" and I am grateful Patti shared her and Robert's story with the world. Now I am going to listen to her music.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

WRITE to the Heart of the Matter: Writing

Several short sentences about writing
by Verlyn Klinkenborg

A few weeks ago, I wanted to read something different from my recent fictional and biographical fare. The book was to be read on an airplane so I also wanted to travel light. I found this book at the library and loved its simplicity. The cover is simple, clean and clear.  I choose well.

I started to read and was amazed at the SHORT SENTENCES.  Short, powerful sentences.  These sentences offer a depth of writing skill and understanding that others would have required pages or chapters to generate.

Klinkenborg is one of those influential people with whom I was unfamiliar. He has great credentials as a member of the New York Times Editorial Board and teacher. He has spent years writing boiling down the essence of a thought to a simple sentence. He had the insight to write:

"Everything in this book is meant to be tested all over again, by you.  You decide what works for you. This is perhaps the most important thing I have to say....Part of the struggle in learning to write is learning to ignore what isn't useful to you and pay attention to what is. If that means arguing with me as you read this book, so be it."  Klinkenborg, Prologue.

That said, I felt no need to argue.  This book's poetical style uplifted and inspired me with every turn of the page.  I could feel how I write and how I could improve it simply by following Klinkenborg's words.  I read the book over two weeks ago, and I am ready to enjoy the experience again.

If you are a writer and also on my Christmas list, I'm sorry you won't have any surprises when you open your gift this holiday.  Yes, it's that good.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Write to the Heart of the Matter: Biography

by Keith Richards
with James Fox

As you are aware, I love audio books. I listen to them on my daily commutes which expands my "reading" time immensely.

When I started my biography kick last fall, one of the first ones I read was by Keith Richards who I still mistakenly refer to as Keith Richard. I thought the book would fill some time since it was 16 discs. However, I soon discovered it did much more than fill a time gap.
Voice is obviously everything in audio. Richards pulls in the best. Johnny Depp voices the story with support from Keith and Joe Hurley. I could listen to these voices again and again and again.

I love the way Keith describes the creative process. While he applies it to songwriting, the process applies to everything in Life.  He recalls:

"The famous day when Andrew locked us in a kitchen in Wellesden and said, 'Come out with a song"--that did happen. Why Andrew put Mick and me together as songwriters and not Mick and Brian, or me and Brian, I don't know...And I said, 'If we want to get out of here, Mick, we better come up with something.'

We sat there  in the kitchen and I began to pick away at the chords...'It is the evening of the day.' I might have written that. 'I sit and watch the children play.' I certainly wouldn't have come up with that. We have two lines and an interesting chord sequence, and then something else took over somewhere in this process. I don't want to say mystical, but you can't put your finger on it. Once you've got that idea, the rest of it will come.  It's like you've planted a seed, then you water it a bit and suddenly it sticks up out of the ground and goes, hey, look at me." (Richards, pg. 142-3).

My favorite discovery in this book is how Keith lives now and how he loves his library.

"I lead a gentleman's life.  Listen to Mozart, read many, many books.  I'm a voracious readers. I'll read anything...The Nelson era and World War II are on the top of my list, but I do the ancient Romans, too, and a certain amount of the British colonial stuff, the Great Game and all that. I have a fine library furnished with these works, with dark wooden shelves reaching to the ceiling." (Richards, pg. 522-3).

I grew up listening to the Stones, hearing about them on the news, and thought I knew quite a bit about Keith Richards.  I didn't.  However, I learned much more as I listened to this book.  And, I liked what I heard.  I think you will, too.