When Beverly Cleary died in March, at 104, the little girl who still lives inside me cried her heart out.
Cleary’s books, along with Judy Blume’s TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE NOTHING and SUPER FUDGE, were the first chapter books I read as a kid. I remember relating to the Quimby family’s always-tight finances, and the frequency with which Ramona heard her parents struggling with depression, big bills, and unavailable jobs. I’ve never forgotten the agony of squeaky shoes on the first day of school or the horror of throwing up in class. And remember when Ramona broke a raw egg on her head? Ugh. Ramona and her foibles taught a generation of kids that one could endure all that, feel all the feels, and carry on.
Did Ramona grow up to be a writer?
The Ramona books came out in the 70s when the economy was hurting, and gas lines were long. Our parents sighed after reading the news a lot, and they tried hard to find their way. Those days smell like peanut butter sandwiches in metal lunch boxes, leather shoes wet with rain, and school glue. Ramona and I both wore hand-me-downs, chose favorite teachers, and felt big feelings. We were little girls without front teeth, and we, too, were trying hard to find our way.
Ramona’s parents weren’t perfect like the parents in other books. They were often irritable or struggling with their burdens, and getting hamburgers in a sit-down restaurant as a family was a BIG TREAT. There were even lovely strangers in the world who paid for their meal. The way Cleary wrote the Quimbys helped me (and a generation of kids) feel seen and life would be okay.
“I think children like to find themselves in books.” ––Beverly Cleary
A librarian told third-grader-Beverly to write stories. She wrote about her third-grade experiences, writing childhood from the inside out. Eight years old is such a pivotal time for a kid. Eventually, Beverly wrote about Ramona, who was eight, who was read by readers like me, also eight. The result is a bit like Russian nesting dolls, except with a writer, inside a writer, inside a writer. So, maybe generations of kids who nested inside Ramona like me became writers because of that librarian.
I have a hunch Ramona Quimby grew into a woman who still found wonder around every corner, felt all of her feelings, and laughed at her foibles––eventually. Looking at photos of the elderly Beverly, with the glint of Ramona forever in her eye, I’m sure that’s exactly how life turned out. And now, at 104, Beverly has died. But Ramona lives on, in books and in writers like me.
Tia Levings hired me as her writing coach in 2017. Since then, she completed her memoir, co-authored a book on the craft of writing, and started a podcast for writers. I’m delighted to have Tia as a colleague, co-writer, and client. And I’m so glad that she’s sharing some of her writing experience with us, here. Thanks, Tia!
WHAT IS A WRITING COACH? Someone who helps writers get their books done! Part editor, part cheerleader, part story confidante, a coach is always, always on a writer’s side—and she is also someone who has the chops, knowledge, and experience to make her support effective.
Your writing coach is your smart, effective writing friend. Whether you’re trying to figure out which writing project to tackle next, how to plot your story, or how to even handle such a big commitment with so many other demands on your time, she will guide you forward confidently.
She’s traveled this road before, and knows how to get you where you’re going.
While I’ve been coaching writers for well over a decade, and have developed solid strategies along the way, I was curious: what makes a great writing coach? I asked this question of a dozen writers, including several well-published colleagues, a few clients, a former writing coach, an editor, the head of a college writing program, and the creative director of a small publishing house.
If you’re in the market for a writing coach, you might keep their responses in mind.
So, what does make a great writing coach?
Tom Wallace, editor and ghostwriter: Contrary to what many new writers believe, the craft of writing—narrative writing, creative writing—is less an inborn talent than a collection of skills that can be learned. In my observation, the best coaches—great coaches—can not only hold multiple story and character ideas in their minds, but guide writers in applying the skills they need to make those ideas work. A great coach offers both their knowledge and their generous attention to a writer’s creative needs. Working with a coach is an investment in time and energy that can transform a writer’s creative journey and pay off for years to come.
Joyce Sweeney, award-winning author, former writing coach, literary agent with The Seymour Agency: I think, moving past the obvious skill of knowing the rules of good writing and how to apply them, the real talent a great writing coach brings to the table is to be able to read the client’s work and feel the intent. We have to know what this person is doing, why they are doing it, and what is important to them beyond what they have written. What do they uniquely have to say? What undeveloped gifts can we see traces of? We have to somehow see the finished project they are dreaming of, and work backwards from that to what they have put on the page so far.
Tam Cillo, Communications at Club Car: We all have our writing strengths and weaknesses. A good writing coach celebrates the former and helps improve the latter—and she creates an atmosphere of acceptance. When she reviews my writing, she is listening for my voice, my personality. This means she sees what’s possible in even the roughest pieces. Like my favorite scuffed sneakers, my work doesn’t need to be pristine, like out-of-the-box white Keds for her to see the potential.
A great writing coach does more than encourage, though. She helps me set goals—and stick to them. She knows that the art of writing takes more than creativity, that I must continue to develop my skills. And when I get stuck, she’s a motivator who helps me move the roadblocks and continue on the way toward my success.
Elizabeth Sims, award-winning author, contributing editor at WRITER’S DIGEST magazine: A great writing coach is first a listener. Tell me your troubles! Then, a permission-giver. It’s OK for you to feel anxious when you do new things. It’s OK for you to screw up! In fact, it’s required! Then, a combination wrecking ball and new puppy. Let’s blast through obstacles without much thought! Let’s make friends out of troubles we can’t break apart! Love the storm and sunshine equally! What a journey!
Reverend Rebecca M. Bryan, minister at First Religious Society, Unitarian Universalist: A great writing coach is someone whom you trust implicitly to guide you on the right path. She always tells the truth and holds the success of your work as paramount importance. She’s a consummate professional, who has a way of being kind to your spirit and entirely honest at the same time. Her critique and redirection always resonate and nudge you to the next right step in your writing, while her encouragement is ever-present. You trust her with your craft, which is to say you trust her with your heart and your professional path.
Peg Loves, writer: I had four developmental editors before I realized what I needed was a writing coach. Through my many sessions I’ve found these attributes to be what makes, for me, a great writing coach:
She’s an incubator for ideas. I have brought twigs of ideas into a meeting and left with the frame for a tree house.
She’s an advocate—a champion of the work and ally to my goals. When she pushes back on an idea, but changes her opinion after being led through my thought process, I know I have an advocate. When she doesn’t let me avoid something hard that I’m fully capable of doing, I know I have an advocate.
She has the breadth of a developmental editor and the depth of an investigator, willingly jumping in to help me untangle weak points and suggest strong threads to braid into the story.
I believe, though, part of what makes a writing coach great is the writer. Are you open-minded? Are you clear on your goals? Are you ready to deep dive into the work? Finding the right writing coach is much like dating, trying out personalities, finding which one fits best to foster your productive and fruitful work.
To help develop an appropriate, effective platform
To create a clear direction for your writing efforts and career
The best writing coaches aren’t just editors—they’re guides to the wider world of reading, writing, and publishing. A great writing coach will help identify what’s holding you back, troubleshoot specific writing projects, and offer insider-industry advice to create a pathway to the future you want in the world of writing.
MK Swanson, writer: A great writing coach is …
A cheerleader to speed you to the goalpost.
A best friend for delivering truth gently.
A concierge on whose efficiency you can depend.
A masseuse with whom your creative muscles relax.
A drill sergeant by whose orders your story gets stronger.
A trail guide to lead you past the brink of madness.
A magic hat from which to pull rabbits.
Teri Saveliff, author of SIGNATURES: If you ask a friend, even a well-qualified friend, to judge the quality of your work, you will likely get a supportive but not necessarily accurate response. A good writing coach will tell you the truth. A great coach will tell you the truth in a way that encourages you to jump in and make the changes that will benefit your story—even, or especially, if these are big changes.
If you’re like me, you love words and have an easy time putting them on paper. But maybe the overall arc of your story is weak. A writing coach can tease out the story lines you may have buried in pretty language and give your work some true substance. She can also work her magic on unlikable protagonists and improbable plot lines. Ready to take it to the next level? Consult a writing coach.
Hanna Kjeldbjerg, creative director at Beaver’s Pond Press: When I’m looking to connect authors with a writing coach, the number one thing I look for is heart. Writing is so personal, and manuscripts are oftentimes an extension of ourselves. It’s true that authors need writing coaches for accountability, organization, and an objective eye to help with structural elements like narrative arc. But more than that, writers need a partner who understands their vision for their book, who feels like a friend.
My favorite editing quote is “Editing fiction is like using your fingers to untangle the hair of someone you love” (Stephanie Roberts). A relationship with a great writing coach should feel like that.
Megan Cooke, writer, animator, graduate Ringling College of Art and Design Creative Writing Program:
Great writing coaches don’t just tell you to fix something, they explain how to reach your solution.
Prioritization and organization are huge—a great coach will help you focus on what matters most.
A great coach should have your future readers in mind. They’ll catch things that will be confusing or unsatisfying to your audience.
Your coach should know what hard decisions need to be made. A coach can help you make tough decisions—sometimes even suggesting “killing your darlings”—that will benefit your entire story.
A good relationship between you and your coach makes all the difference. Our stories can be very personal, and a great coach will understand what matters most to you. They will encourage you and push you to produce your best work.
Scott Dobbins, aspiring futurist; founder/CEO, Hybridge:Any writing coach must have the experience and knowledge to provide perspective and insight to their writers. But that is just a part of it. A great writing coach must have the ability to engage with their writers on many levels—personally, intellectually, and spiritually. This forms an authentic bond, one rooted in mutual trust and respect.
With this foundation, a great coach may be empathetic and supportive in one session and no-nonsense and directive in another—whatever the project and writer require at the time. A great writing coach knows when to push you and how to pull it out of you. They are both your cheerleader and your challenger, your accountability partner, and your friend.
WHEN DENA K. MARTINES CONTACTED ME, she was stuck in a corporate job that she was determined to love. She had the tools, she told me: everything from meditation, to intentionality, to feng shui. And she was working those tools as hard as she could!
In fact, believing she knew how to turn her corporate situation around, she wanted to write a book about surviving—and thriving—in the corporate world. Which is why she reached out to me for book coaching. I was fascinated by Dena’s ideas. And she clearly had her finger on the pulse of the culture she was trying to improve.
But, long and short of it, halfway through our eighteen months together, Dena pulled the plug on her corporate life. During her corporate years, while she’d learned a variety of approaches to staying sane in that world, she’d also discovered that, despite a person’s best efforts, the corporate life is not for everyone.
During her time in corporate, however, she also discovered her purpose: helping others live their best lives—whether that means working in a corporation or working for themselves as break-out entrepreneurials. Which is exactly what Dena has become! And exactly what her book-in-progress is all about!
Along with her partner, Megan E. Fox, Dena has launched GenXWoman. And like all new businesses, they need to get the word out about their stellar services! That’s where you (might) come in. You see, Dena and Megan need blog writers. If you’re interested in creating content for an up-and-coming company, read on. You’ll get Dena’s take on our work together and learn about the company she’s started—as well as your potential role!
DENA TELLS HER STORY
First Steps: In January 2019, I reached out to Jamie to help me write a book. At the time, all I knew was I wanted to write a book—but wasn’t completely sure what that book would be about. A year-and-a-half later, I am well under way to completing my first draft. I credit Jamie’s no-nonsense advice and consistent guidance for helping me get moving in the right direction. Through it all, Jamie has witnessed my professional transformation from working a full-time corporate job that was draining my spirit to my new role as a multifaceted entrepreneur who is following her soul’s purpose.
The GenXWoman adventure: GenXWoman was born from the bond of two Generation X women: myself and Megan E. Fox. We were frustrated with the negative and often depressing narrative about Gen-X people in general, and Gen-X women in particular. We also noticed the lack of online and offline spaces that cater to our generation’s needs. So, after more than eighteen years in corporate America, we decided to join forces and create IGenxwoman.com, a digital platform for Gen-X women by Gen-X women.
Our vision: We are committed to creating a community for Generation X women, a place where they feel heard. A place that inspires them with uplifting, solution-oriented content tailored specifically for them. Our space is meant to be a place for Gen-X women to call home. A place where like-minded women can come together to share their stories and offer support to one another and to uplift and encourage one another.
Our mission: We believe that Gen-X women have the right to claim their place and forge their legacy in the world. Therefore, we challenge the prevailing narrative of Generation X. No longer the “sandwich generation,” we want to be known as the “bridge generation.” No longer voiceless, we want to be heard. No longer exhausted, we want to be vibrant and energized. No longer stuck and resigned, we are ready to rise up, strong and empowered, and be included in the global effort to redefine the paradigm of our world.
Join us in the revolution: GenXWoman is looking for compelling and experienced blog writers to join our team and support us in our mission. If you are passionate about uplifting, educating, and empowering women, please reach out with samples of your writing at email@example.com or via our website at igenxwoman.com/contact/. Please also check us out on Instagram and Facebook at @genxwoman.
WE ARE WRITERS. Which means we are readers. We read, in part, to understand the lives of others—both the lives of fictional folks and those of our flesh-and-blood kin, past and present. As POETS & WRITERS so eloquently put it: [W]riters … help us understand ourselves and our times, deepen our capacity for empathy, and imagine a better future.
The current uprisings in our country have pointed out to me that I have not grasped the realities Black people in our communities live with every day. If this is true of you, too, know that there are many ways to address the gaps in our awareness and to support our fellow Americans. But for the purposes of this forum, I’m focusing on what you and I share: We read. And our reading can both deepen our understanding of the lives of Black citizens and support the livelihood of Black writers.
For the rest of the summer, the Academy of American Poets will be dedicating their Poem-a-Day to Black poets and engaging a number of Black curators for that project. They will also create a new series for Poets.orgthat features essays by poets of color. They are also in the process of adding biographies of Black, Indigenous, and all poets of color who have contributed to shaping American poetry to Poets.org.
Literary Hub shares their list of 60 more Black-owned bookstores, all of which are taking phone orders today! You can browse their virtual shelves, then purchase a big stack of new understanding—and great reading—while having a real, voice-to-voice conversation with another human!
I WANT TO INTRODUCE YOU TO SOMEONE! YA writer Alina Smith and I have worked together since November of 2017—three awesome years and counting!* In that time, I’ve seen this committed writer dig in and learn how toplot the heck out of a story … then dig even deeper to find truthful motivations for her characters. Those motivations, in turn, lead to powerful arcs that give her stories real guts (and will deliver true satisfaction to her readers!).
I count myself lucky to be on Team Alina and am so happy to pass on her invitation to connect with you. So, without further ado, I give you Ms. Alina Smith!
What’s up guys! I’m Alina. Although I have a pretty sweet day job—I’m a songwriter and producer in a music team LYRE, which has worked with artists and bands across genres, from Fall Out Boy to K-pop girl group Red Velvet-–over the past few years, I’ve gotten excited about writing stories. Particularly futuristic YA stories with chilling twists on current technology: think BLACK MIRRORpopulated by hormonal teenagers.
I started writing my first YA novel three years ago and got about two-thirds of the way in before being pulled into a new direction, one which merges my music career and my literary passion. You see, in the last few years, LYRE has become known for working with digital creators: influencers with millions of followers across all social media platforms. As my music partner, Elli, and I wrote songs with these YouTube and Instagram stars, I felt myself getting immersed in their world: a world where your worth depends solely on the numbers of likes and followers on your socials. It got me thinking: What if this world was exacerbated further? What if the numbers on your socials meant life or death? That’s how the idea for my latest book was born. It’s called “Influencer.”
As I’ve been writing “Influencer” (one-and-a-half years and counting!), I’ve done plenty of Google searches. I’ve checked out writers’ blogs, advice columns, and YouTube channels. It’s been fun watching published authors share bits and pieces of their journeys. But it got me wondering: Are there any not-yet-published writers sharing their process with the world? Their aha! moments and their blocks, their triumphs and fails, their I-just-finished-this-act underwear dances, and the moments when they just wanna throw their laptop through the wall? I poked around, but there didn’t seem to be much: no hungry new writers diving into their process and allowing others to snorkel beside them.
That’s when it hit me: I should share my own writing process! My struggles with beat sheets, my ever-evolving characters, what it’s like to find time for writing alongside another creative career—and all the other myriad aspects of the novel-writing process that I find fascinating. Whether I become a hit author or end up throwing my story in the trash and setting it on fire, I want to highlight what it’s like to be a first-time novelist. And I hope to connect with anyone else who’s going through the same thing.
So, please join me on this fun (and slightly terrifying journey) on my YouTube channel: Alina Writes a Book.
And if you’re writing YA fiction, too? Please, drop me a line on Instagram or Twitter. I’d love to hear about your story and your journey creating it!
* Alina’s loving our collaboration, too! She recently wrote, Jamie is such a fantastic coach! Her approach is very intuitive. No matter what I’m working on, from plotting to character development, she always has an intelligent, unique perspective. If you’d like to take your writing to another level, I strongly recommend Jamie!
MONA AND I WRITE TOGETHER EVERY FEW WEEKS. Well. “Together.” Since she lives in Colorado and I’m in Florida, we meet by phone, pulling prompts from our back pockets and slinging them down the phone line like challenges, then setting a timer, and writing as fast as we can.
Generally, we write three times—never for long. Five minutes, ten at the most. But why write together at all? Because we find working this way freshens our brains. It pushes us to write faster, stretch further, and let ourselves get just a little bit wilder. We loosen up, timed writing by timed writing, until, usually, we both end up with something we like, even if it’s just a few sentences.
Today, we started with Natalie Goldberg’s“I remember” prompt. While I wrote about palmettos and pines and a sweet, young calico cat who followed my friend Mary and me on a meandering walk in the woods, Mona wrote about a recently stolen bike, remembering it as “thistle-colored,” like the favorite Crayola crayon of her youth.
For our second prompt, I texted Mona a photo of an abstract painting. After we wrote, we read to one another, and I learned that while I saw the red-and-black center of the painting as a black box of shame going up in flames, Mona saw it as a poppy. Hmm.
Mona started from Jackson’s imagery, then left him behind and blazed her own trail:
The crackly stars, gray corkscrew curls pull into the feeling of listening, how we might listen to our loved ones, friends, and neighbors. The Vietnam War. How could we not listen to that crackling sound of guns and whirr of helicopters on the nightly news? How could anyone turn away.
For my part, I made some wild associative leaps:
Did I tell you about my deaf ear? And my mother’s? And my grandmother’s? “Is it on purpose?” you ask. “Maybe. It’s easier that way—to hear less.”
And Winter the cat, with mangled cartilage for ears. “How is his hearing?” I asked the woman who’d fostered him. “Selective,” she said. Which has proved to be right.
But when I tried to explain my own hearing to the eager girl on the yoga mat beside me, whom I can never understand, her words, sentences, ideas, baffling, like moths, furry in my ears, she told me, as clearly as anything she’s ever said, “I’m blind in my right eye.”
Natalie Goldberg‘s WRITING DOWN THE BONES and WILD MIND have provided seemingly endless inspiration for myself and the writers I work with, encouraging us to be fresh and free-minded, and to seek the healthy companionship of other writers.
DO YOU KNOW WHAT FEEDS YOUR CREATIVE FIRE? While it might be as plain (or as stunningly gorgeous) as the nose on your face, sometimes it takes a mirror for us to see exactly what helps us thrive as writers, as artists, as creative participants in our lives.
MIRROR MIRROR: I’m taking an intensive creative challenge, ICAD (Index Card a Day), with Tammy Garcia of Daisy Yellow—and about 300 other fabulously creative, engaging, encouraging folks (600, if you include Instagram participants)! When I asked Tammy what I should sign up for next, she said, “I think you really thrive on the group interaction,” and suggested I choose another workshop with a dynamic group.
I don’t know Tammy well, nor have I known her for long. But she sees my preference for creating within a group as plainly as she does the nose on my face—which I can’t perceive myself without a mirror of exactly the sort Tammy kindly provided.
Tammy is right. I thrive in groups. Not only do I make art most happily in highly interactive groups, but I also
attend three busy yoga classes a week, as much for the friendly social interactions as for the fabulous instruction at Winter Park’s Full Circle Yoga,
create writing groups just to have others to write with,
When I’m feeling stuck, having partners, or at least compatriots, fuels me. Their support, or feedback, or even participation fires up my engine again.
So, back to you: What fuels your creativity? Do you know which circumstances or types of support allow you to play fully and freely in your preferred forms of art or creative living? If not, ask three of your closest friends what they think gives you the juice you need. I bet they’ll provide you with a strikingly accurate reflection of your creative self (and your adorable nose).
I MET PAULA JEFFERY SEVERAL YEARS AGO in an online art group. The other day, we had a chat about how investing time (consistently) and effort (persistently) in any art form will eventually bear fruit—and she pointed me to this post, which she wrote for her own blog, but is graciously allowing me to share in an edited-for-length version with you. (And, yes, it’s about drawing, but really it’s about anything to which you’d like to apply yourself!)
* * *
I’ve Got No Talent
Not long ago, I read THE TALENT CODE by Daniel Coyle. In it, he tells about a group of children who were monitored before and during the time they took music lessons. After a couple of months, as you would expect, some were doing really well, some not so well, and most were in the middle of that bell curve. The researchers looked closely for common factors between those who were excelling. They looked at things like the amount of practice they did, home environment, anything they could think of that might influence the children’s musical ability. They could find nothing. None of the factors they anticipated had any effect at all.
Until … bingo! Before they started lessons, all the children were asked, “How long do you see yourself playing music?” Their answers ranged from “until the end of term” to “a couple of years” to “forever.” The researchers were amazed to find those answers sat perfectly aligned on the bell curve! The kids who saw themselves as musicians playing forever were head and shoulders above the rest, sometimes by as much as 400 percent—even if they practiced less! The kids who decided their music career would only last until the end of term were the same kids who were falling behind. The only common factor was their attitude to learning music before they even picked up an instrument.
This is not some mysterious, ethereal thing: It’s attitude!
Every now and again, someone on social media will say, “You’re so talented,” which is kind and lovely, but sometimes what’s unspoken is: “You’re lucky. You can just do this stuff. You were born with this ‘gift,’ and I wasn’t.” But I wasn’t a talented kid! I took art at school because I was lazy and it seemed an easy option. I wasn’t even allowed to take the art exams because my work was so bad. My adult life was spent happily stating I couldn’t draw a straight line.
Fast forward to 2014. I was 59 years old. Going off-piste one day on a visit to YouTube Land, I discovered art journaling. It looked like fun. You didn’t have to actually draw or paint anything recognizable, you could splash paint about and glue pictures from magazines. From there, I did a couple of courses (shoutouts to Tamara Laporte and Effy Wild), and I painted figures and faces. Then I did ICAD (the index card a day challenge: shoutout to Daisy Yellow). One of the daily prompts was “eye.” I hunted on YouTube for How to draw an eye and found a step-by-step tutorial. I followed along and, OMG, I drew a recognizable, not-bad-looking eye.
This was an aha moment. These techniques could be learned! Next, I drew an elephant, again from instructions! I was so excited. I thought, “I could learn to draw,” and there was no stopping me. I joined groups. Someone recommended Danny Gregory, and I joined Sketchbook Skool, founded by Danny and Koojse, and amazing tutors from all over the world opened my eyes and freed up my pen. I joined drawing memes and drew 100 faces, one each day, to see if it improved my technique. And guess what? It did! Now, I’m taking part in Imagining, the latest Sketchbook Skool Kourse (where our last tutor was the amazing Stefan G. Bucher).
For the last three years, I’ve drawn nearly every day. I’ve worked at it and studied hard. I try not to compare myself to others, and I absolutely LOVE what I’m doing.
Here are three sketches of my husband, Graham. I did the first in 2014 as part of my 100 Faces project. It was a massive improvement on previous portraits. The second I did in 2017, and I really pleased with it. The final portrait I just completed.
So, when someone tells me I’m talented, with an undertone that suggests they couldn’t do it, I am tempted to sit them down and gently tell them that “Yes, yes, really, you can.” Their next line is usually “I’m too busy.” So busy there is not time in the day to take five minutes to draw something, anything? I learnt a lot about “busy” when I studied for my Open University degree with women who had three kids under school age and wrote their essays at the kitchen table in the early hours of the morning. And got their degrees. If you really want to do something, you will find the time.
Then the argument can shift to this: “Well, I’m too busy doing other things I prefer.” That’s fine. That’s an “I don’t want to,” rather than an “I can’t.” (Occasionally, I hear an “I’m too busy” that really means “What I do is so much more important than your little scribblings.” But, hey, for those, I just nod and smile, nod and smile.)
Apart from my immediate (and very lovely) family and friends, social media has been the biggest catalyst for my artistic achievements. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have continued without the support of Facebook friends and groups. Inspirational, supportive, and non-judgmental art groups are amazing and always offer the message Yes, you can!
Now, I’m not afraid to say, “I’m an artist,” with no apologies (and no “amateur” in the mix).
I’M WRITING A BOOK that includes tarot writing prompts (out next year—stay tuned!). In the process, I’ve roped twenty-one writer friends into guinea-pigging some of the prompts. Which led me to BFF Jill’s kitchen table last night, where we each took a running leap at the Ace of Pentacles.
While I won’t spill the actual prompt, I am going to share my response. (Jill’s beautiful piece and the prompt that elicited it will both be in the book.) As you read what I wrote, though, see if you can reverse engineer it and find a prompt to play with yourself.
He told me this story 25 years ago, and maybe he’s past it now. But maybe not. Anyway, this is how I heard it …
He’d gone out for the evening, leaving his recovering-cocaine-addict ex-wife babysitting their eight-year-old son. When he returned, the kid was asleep and his ex was on the couch watching a movie.
He plopped down to join her. Suddenly, as the camera pulled in close on the lead actress, he found himself flushed, the sweat of attraction prickling. He was hooked, he said, the same way he’d been when he first met his ex—and the coke-head girlfriend before her.
When the credits finally rolled, his ex-wife gestured at the screen. “That woman,” she said, “had a raging coke habit when she made that movie.” Then she shrugged the whatcha gonna do? shrug of a former addict, gave him a hug, and let herself out the door.
That’s when he got it: No matter what, no matter how many meetings he attended, no matter how many hours he spent talking to his therapist, no matter how many years of sobriety he himself had, if there was an active cocaine user in any room, the beacon of her addiction would blind him to every other woman there. He would stumble towards her as if he were hypnotized. And there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it.
Except this: From that moment on, he could remind himself that if he was suddenly and heart-poundingly desperate to accept what a woman was holding out to him, for sure, that offer would eventually prove too good to be true.
Tarot writing prompt
So, that was my response to the prompt Jill and I tackled. And it surprised me. The memory of being told that story was buried deep. But it surfaced as I began to write.
As you probably know, timed writing to a prompt—committing ten, twenty, even thirty minutes to just letting our pen or fingers fly, not stopping to censor or reread—allows us access to parts of our mind we may not usually get to when we write more deliberately.
It can produce raw, rough, open-ended results. But that’s sort of the point. Either we just enjoy the process and appreciate the unpredictable product, or maybe we take what we’ve created and use it as a starting point for something else—fodder for a fresh direction we might not have accessed otherwise.
For me, sitting at Jill’s table, rain beating down, cats sacked out nearby, the prompt I’d created for the Ace of Pentacles triggered a long-held memory. I was happy just to get it out of my brain and onto the page.
Is it deathless prose? Not at all! It’s not even an entire story (although I could make the case that it has a character arc). Still, I wrote. And sometimes that is more than half the battle.
While you’ll have to wait until the book comes out to see the exact prompt we used Saturday night, here are two clues: The main thrust of it is contained somewhere in the final sentence—and it’s metaphorically illustrated by a major element of the accompanying tarot card.
But whether you want to play detective and puzzle out that prompt, or you want to read the story I wrote and let that—or the image of the Ace, or the idea of a rainy Saturday night spent sitting at a kitchen table with a friend—trigger a memory or story of your own, have at it! Let your flying pen or fingers provide a chute for your imagination to slip through onto the page.
TODAY, MY WEBSITE IS BROKEN. Well. Cracked. It’s a thing I just discovered. And I feel as helpless about it as the little guy in this card feels about his broken purple cup. Fortunately, like that little guy, I am not alone in my predicament. My website creator, the fabulous card readerMelissa Jo Hill, is ON IT!! Which, thank God. Because, I’m just not.
Nor am I on the SEO/marketing part of my business. But excellent-writer-in-many-genres (and also publisher) pal Tia Levings is. And brilliant, cat-loving, speculative-fiction-writing Mary K Swanson (no period after the “K”) has my techno-helpless butt covered when it comes to computer software and hardware. Thank GOD!!
And this list of good and helpful friendliness doesn’t even include Mr. After Fifty Adventureman, Hugh Holborn, who came down yesterday for a confab about his adventurous memoir-in-progress—and brought a can of WD 40, a metal brush, and a bucketful of tools to fix my garage door.
With friends and colleagues like these, my various broken cups and garage doors and computers don’t stay so for long. So I wasn’t all that surprised when I turned over the strange Nine of Cups (above) last night.
You see, the tarot Nine of Cups is usually associated with the sense of well-being that comes with having enough (as illustrated by this traditional—slightly smug—image from the Rider Waite Smith Tarot), not with the comfort of friendship.
But the card from the PHANTASMAGORIC THEATER TAROT (top) goes its own way, and depicts a community gathered in support of one of its members, rather than a single person self-satisfied with his cups.
That first image reminds me that neither my wealth nor my well-being lie in the material or technological or cyber-ish things I lean so heavily on, but in my friendships. As an old pal used to say, “Our most reliable ‘social security’ is actually our community, not what (we hope!) the government has tucked away on our behalf.”
Tarot writing prompt
Your character (or you!) has gotten into a jam (always good for story-telling, right?). Something’s broken. Irrevocably. Something in which she (you?) is very much invested. Is it a precious object? A part of her anatomy? A relationship? Decide … and then write the following:
1) A scene in which you show us exactly how deeply your character is invested in the object/anatomical part/relationship—and why! (What’s at stake?)
2) A scene in which we witness the object (or ???) breaking.
3) A final scene in which your character’s community rallies to help her (you?) mourn the irrevocable brokeness—and helps her take steps to move beyond the loss.