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!
IT’S BEEN A TOUGH YEAR. You’ve probably heard that at least a thousand times. But it’s true. And that toughness can lend a dark and uneasy tone to our lives.
But here comes Thanksgiving to remind us of our blessings. And why not? Even if there’s no turkey (bird or vegan) for our tables, even if our families (of origin or choice) are unable to join us to raise a glass, even if we have sustained devastating loss over the last few hundred days, still, we can—if we wish—look around and find something to be thankful for.
And doing so seems to be good for us! According to an article in FORBES, focusing on gratitude improves not only our psychological well-being, but our physical health. Feeling thankful may also help us sleep better and think better. And, certainly, it inclines us more positively toward ourselves and our fellow humans.
Writing prompts for gratitude
We writers often make sense of things by writing. So here are a handful of prompts to support you if you feel the need to shift your gaze from what’s not working to what is.
1) Start a gratitude journal. Making a daily list of three to five things we’re grateful for is a simple but effective way to keep gratitude alive in our hearts.
2) Write about a time when something wonderful happened (expected or not). Remembering any boon—from the timely discovery of a much-needed twenty-dollar bill to learning that a loved one’s health concern ended up being nothing for concern at all—reminds us that, like rays of sunshine, moments of well-being can break through the cloudiest of times.
3) Create a dour character who, like Eeyore, sees life as an endless series of difficulties. Put that character in unavoidable proximity to a person you might call a “Pollyanna,” someone who is unremittingly cheerful. Perhaps they become roommates or cubicle mates; or maybe Pollyanna marries into Eeyore’s close-knit family. Or they’re stuck in an elevator together! Or on a “three-hourtour“!
However you glue them together, let Pollyanna’s sunny outlook eventually push your Eeyore to a change of attitude. (This may take considerable doing. All the better for dramatic tension!)
4) Write about a random act of kindness and its unexpected, far-reaching effect. This can be something you did for someone else, or a kindness you received. You might also use this idea to launch a short story!
5) List your own good qualities, attributes of yours for which you’re grateful. Dig deep! Don’t be modest. In addition, you could list the ten best qualities of some of those closest to you. Bonus: Make any of these lists into a poem!
These prompts are just jump-starts, a handful of ways you might incorporate gratitude and thankfulness into your writing. They aren’t (necessarily) meant to elicit high literary art. They are meant to remind you of what’s going right in your world and send you into your day (or into your dreams) with a lighter heart.
And that’s something to be thankful for.
Here are some books I turn to when I need to boost my gratitude practice. In them, you’ll find folks whose compassion and generosity and appreciation of the everyday world make their own and others’ lives better.
SOMETIMES, WE’RE MUTE, we writers. Sometimes, we drift, dream, words floating above us, like sunset clouds in fantastical shifting shapes—now a ship, now a sheep, now a swan and his wife. Sometimes, it’s twilight, and we’re quiet, content. Sometimes, we choose not to cast our nets to capture those words, glittering like so many stars in the broad night sky of our imagination.
My writer friend and co-author Tia Levings signs off emails with this quote:
But the dreamers of the day are dangerous people, for they may think their dreams into reality with open eyes. —T.E. Lawrence
So, yes, sometimes, it’s enough to read what’s in our own hearts, and let the words build castles and angels and half-memories, undisturbed. Sometimes, we have no need to chase them and jar them, like fireflies, but, instead, simply watch the words flicker into tiny, brief constellations that mean just what they mean to themselves, while we allow them—and ourselves—to be mysteries that remain unsolved. At least for now.
These may be times to read fairy tales or peek into other writers’ journals to see how they dream and drift on the page. Here are some stories and pages that may flutter beside your own quiet heart right now.
IN TAROT CIRCLES, the Hierophant, also known as the Pope, can get a bad rap—for being an uber-conservative, repressive, by-the-book sort of guy. But, really, he might just represent any clergy person, mentor, or teacher—however rule-bound or not. And I’ve had some great teachers!
My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Nethercote, for instance, gave me props for my mad reading skills. The next year, my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Smith (who looked like Aunt Bea from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW), thought I was a fine communicator and took the time to introduce me as such to my third-grade teacher, who subsequently always listened to what I had to say!
High school was tough, but my tenth-grade English teacher, whose name is lost to memory (and to various adolescent indulgences), was a bright light, encouraging my poetry-writing. In Seattle, at Shoreline Community College, theater instructor Charlie gave me a directorial role, saying she thought I had leadership potential.
As I make this list, other teachers—a horseback-riding instructor, an art teacher, a math professor—arrive at the threshold of my mind, nodding approval across the years. Their long-remembered encouragement has boosted my self-esteem and bolstered my belief in my own abilities when I’ve needed it most.
This, then, is a thank you to them all.
Revisit your memory of a supportive teacher—or create such a champion in the life of a character who could benefit from one just about now.
Alternatively, if your life has been stingy regarding mentors, consider this your chance to rewrite history and provide yourself one you wish you’d had. Once you’ve got him or her on the page, let your self-created mentor provide a bit of guidance. Chances are it will be some of the best advice you’ve ever received!
When I told my art pal Paula Jeffery about this prompt, she shared this poem with me:
Just Words by Paula Jeffery*
Before home time, every day, That sleepy, can’t-write-any-more Time of day, Low sun picks out chalk dust Suspended in air, over kids, Who only want to meander Across the park, For tea and Thunderbirds.
Most kids. Not all kids. Not us kids. We were Mr. Gardener’s kids, And the slowest of us perked, Eyes bright, legs crossed At the end of the day, Warm with anticipation. Home was not pressing On our nine-year-old minds
Unexpected Mr. Gardener, Generous, mild, and Gentle sharer of knowledge, Balancing on the brink Of retirement, Who, at the Christmas concert, Awed us, floored us With soaring solo Emmanuels.
Before the bell, we gathered round. He held the book aloft and cracked open our little worlds With Beowulf. No diluted, convoluted picture story form, This was all bloody battles, Dragons, a severed arm. A teacher transformed Animated, passionate, Mr. Gardener Held us all in thrall
We went home through the cloakroom, Summer air heavy with the smell Of plimsolls and sour milk, Minds alive and buzzing with heroes and monsters, Chasing sword play across the park.
I thought, Imagine. You can have all that
With just words.
TAROT’S EMPEROR IS MY NEMESIS. Committed to authority, structure, systems, and patriarchy, he’s the STOP sign, the NO ACCESS barricade, the guy manning every single freakin’ security checkpoint. Ask him for permission, and your request is likely to be stamped: DENIED.
The Emperor makes the rules and hires minions to enforce them. He’s the senator voting on the speed-limit bill, which the police uphold. He’s the president of your homeowners’ association, who, having established how short you need to keep your grass, has his secretary send you threatening letters if it’s grown over a half-inch. He’s the manager of the hair salon at the far end of the waterfront, where there are no public restrooms, who instructs the receptionist no to let you in to use theirs—no matter that you’re about to pee your pants.
All of which is fine. I mean, someone’s got to keep chaos at bay. But, dammit, when I’m faced with one of the Emperor’s implacable minions? When I need something just one toenail across their seemingly arbitrary line? For instance, when the stern librarian turns down my request for a measly three-day extension on THE SECRET LIFE OF OWLS? Then, I’m not a fan. Nope.
(FRUSTRATING) WRITING PROMPT
Perhaps, like me, your character just wants an extension on a library loan—or permission to paint a butterfly mural on her garage. Or maybe she’s facing something more serious. Temporarily strapped, she might be seeking food assistance to tide her over. Or coverage for critical medical treatment. Or political asylum! Whatever her need, the resounding “no” she receives from the Emperor or one of his representatives may seem like the final, defeating word.
Unless she’s prepared to take matters into her own hands, that is.
So, what do you think? Do some brainstorming, pen in hand, about:
what your character might need,
what rides on her getting it,
whether she’ll buck authority if she has to,
and, if so (yay!) what bold steps she’ll take in her bid to govern her own life.
READING is the flip side of writing. Every author, teacher, or writing coach worth their salt will suggest you read widely in your genre if you want to publish—Stephen King* not least among them! We’ll say this (often) because we know you’ll learn as much about structure and style from considering how your favorite authors artfully construct their stories as you will from even the most instructive books about the writing craft.
Further, reading—in one’s genre or out of it—reliably restocks our pond of creativity, so that, when we go angling for new ideas and approaches, there are always plenty of fish to choose from.
Also, as poet W. H. Auden is reported to have said, “We read to learn more of what it means to be human.” And it does seem that often we are—consciously or unconsciously—seeking wisdom of some sort when we pick up a book.
USED TO BE, I’D FIND GREAT STORY IDEAS in the newspaper that got tossed at my door each morning. Recently, though, I haven’t even had to get out of bed to gather inspirational goodness. That’s because a couple of bloggers have been delivering fresh literary fodder to my inbox on the regular. Here are two such ideas. Either could blast a humdrum story out of its complacency!
1) Inventing narratives
Hip biz guru Seth Godin wrote recently aboutinventing narratives. He said, That story in your head? It’s invented. It has to be. It might be based on some things that actually happened…. But it can’t possibly be a complete and detailed understanding of everything.
Seth sees this creative interpretation as problematic. That’s because Seth is not a novelist! Novelists are probably especially prone to inventing narratives—and probably particularly good at it! They might tell stories about everyday occurrences, family history, or the big issues life flings at us. For instance, a novelist could make up a story to explain the behavior of someone who snatched a parking spot from her, the reasons her parents favor her sister, or why one person got a terrifying diagnosis but she did not.
Which is actually pretty awesome! (Maybe not in real life—but in our literary lives, for sure.) That’s because it’s a short trip from misinterpreting a situation to taking misguided action on it—which, in fiction, can lead to exactly the sort of trouble needed to drive our story full speed ahead!
Got a dead spot in your plot? A place where not enough is happening? Play with this idea:
Your main character misunderstands another person’s motivations—believing them to be acting out of malice, when that is far from the truth!
Even worse, your MC takes vindictive action in response to the story she’s concocted.
What bad stuff comes tumbling down the hill to complicate her life as a result?
How the heck is she going to dig herself out of this mess?
2) Alter egos
Clever tarot writer Kate at DailyTarotGirl.com has been promoting the subversive advice of her “evil twin,” Veronica, for years. As I pondered a fresh approach to complicating a story I was working on, I thought about Veronica and realized the damage an alter ego could do to a plot!
Just imagine it! What if your main character had an alter ego? A persona she allowed to say, eat, or do whatever her daily persona was constrained against? That alternative personality might be braver, stronger, or kinder than she is in her regular guise. Or that other personality might be sneaky and underhanded. Or, if you’re writing a thriller, she might even be murderous!
And that’s just a start! What kinds of literary trouble might such a character generate? The possibilities seem endless—and fascinatingly, conflict-inducing-ly, complicatedly fraught!
So, that’s it for this week. Now, go forth and blow up your plot with these or any other trouble-inducing ideas. Just light the fuse and stick your fingers in your ears. After it gets over the shock, your story will thank you for it!
IF YOU’RE WILLING TO LEAP INTO ITS INVITATION, A GOOD WRITING PROMPT CAN catapult you out of your writing doldrums, unstick your project if it’s stuck, and fling your work in fresh and unexpected directions! And, interestingly, a prompt doesn’t need to be complicated to work its magic. Take, for instance, the writing prompt novelist Heidi Julavits used to rediscover her writing mojo—after children and other obligations had back-burnered her literary life.
Over the course of two years, most evenings Julavits started a journal entry with this prompt: “Today I …” From that simple start, she would record details of her day—her thoughts, activities, pleasures, regrets. But she didn’t stop there. Instead, she allowed herself to stray far from the day’s events. Like a dragonfly, she would flit from topic to topic, shifting freely on the winds of association, revisiting the joys and puzzlements of past experience, as well as conjecturing about the future, often with only the most tangential of connections.
I absolutely recommend reading THE FOLDED CLOCK—yes, for pleasure, but especially for inspiration if you keep a journal or are writing a memoir. But even if neither applies to you, you might want to take Julavits’s approach for a test drive. Try this: Set aside ten or fifteen minutes each evening for a week or two and write, starting with “Today I …,” then leap to whatever thought attracts your attention next.
I’ll give it a try myself!
(TRIGGER WARNING: So, when I let myself free associate, a lá Julavits, I ended up writing about cats. And, of course, the hardest thing about having cats is their inevitable loss. Which is where this writing went. Just letting you know.)
Today I … was drowsy. If not for the cats needing breakfast, I would have slept late, lying in bed, half-dreaming for hours. But the cats were not to be refused. Are cats ever to be refused? Not in my experience. Which includes a lot of cats. Present cats, of course, but past cats, too. And that’s where the heartbreak lives, with the cats of the past and their various ends—which started, in my cat-life, with the disappearance of our black Persian Sukie.
My mother was beside herself with worry—truly, I think, much more worried about Sukie than she ever was about my sister or me. I was eight or nine. Old enough to want to reduce my mother’s anxiety. So I told her I thought I could see Sukie under the house—a wooden farmhouse we were renting that year, its placement up on concrete blocks creating a long, dark crawl space beneath. Dark enough that it was plausible that a black cat could be hiding there, invisible in the murk, except for his eyes glinting if you shined a flashlight towards him. Which I didn’t, not having a flashlight. Although I reported to my mom that I had seen that green glint, wanting to buy her some hope.
In fact, that hope was fleeting. A neighbor pulled up to give us the news. Sukie was (predictably, as I all too soon came to understand) dead. Hit by a car. Like Floffleas and Wobble and, as the years unfolded, several other cats—until we understood that an indoor life for cats might be better for all concerned.
However they passed—traffic, illness, age—so many of the cats I’ve lived with have left an enduring mark. There are dents in my heart where they’ve curled themselves in its various chambers, as if that red beating muscle were a pillow. The special ones—Umphrey, Bertie, Jake, Pea Mouse, Roo—left lasting hollows behind in the exact shape of themselves, their permanent selves, the selves the cars and cancers couldn’t obliterate. “Past cats,” that’s what Jill said, when Jake and Bert died too young and within months of one another. And she was right. Because now there are Jack and Winter and Milo, present cats, each one kneading at the flesh of my heart, softening it up so it will hold their image long after they, too, have passed on.
I’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO WRITE! I was just waiting for the kids to leave the nest (or to be able to work part-time, or to retire, or …). I hear this or some variation from aspiring authors pretty regularly. And I understand! Writing takes a certain amount of time and quiet and concentration—and all of these are in short supply when we’re raising kids and working full-time. But once the day comes—kids successfully launched, work obligations managed—and you’re ready to get serious about that long-held writing dream, do you worry you’ve left it too late?
What you know now will help you as a late-bloomer writer!
Writing, as much as any art form I know, has a long curve. No matter when we start, we’ve got to dig in and learn the craft, as well as figure out our own best approach to getting words on the page reliably. In later life, we may have developed more patience for both of these tasks. In fact, we may even have an edge over our younger selves!
At fifty or sixty, we quite likely have a better sense of how we learn than we did earlier in life. Will we get more from an online class? One-on-one instruction? Or taking a deep dive into a pile of books on the subject? Or do we do best when we just jump in, accruing knowledge on an as-needed basis as we go?
In mid-life (or later), we are also better acquainted with our own habits than we may once have been. Such self-awareness is invaluable when we’re engaging in a pursuit that requires the type of long-term commitment writing asks of us. For instance, by this point, we might know we are absolutely a morning person, not a night owl. That means we can create a schedule that has us writing at our most productive time of day.
We might have also learned strategies that keep us from spinning our wheels. For instance, we once may have dug in our heels, wasting precious energy trying to wrestle a problem into submission. But now, we’re more likely to let the problem go, to step away and take a walk or a nap, understanding that sort of soft focus is more likely to bring us to an elegant solution.
Even more important? With a few extra years under our belt, we understand more about what it means to be human than we did in our youth or early adulthood. And this, above everything, will make what we write today all the more valuable than what we would-a could-a should-a written a few yesterdays ago.
Get inspired by older writers!
In ON WRITING, Stephen King says, … agents, publishers, and editors are all looking for the next hot writer who can sell a lot of books and make lots of money … and not just the next hot young writer, either; Helen Santmyer was in a retirement home [in her eighties!] when she published AND LADIES OF THE CLUB. Frank McCourt was quite a bit younger  when he published ANGELA’S ASHES, but he was still no spring chicken.
Taking a quick spin around the web, I discovered a few more notable, late-publishing authors to inspire us who have left the art of writing for our retirement years.
Grace Burrowes always kept a diary, but the best-selling romance author was more reader than writer—until she wrote her first novel when her daughter left for college.
DO YOU WANT TO ENCOURAGE A YOUNG WRITER? A kid you know may have a clever way with words or be an off-again/on-again journal keeper. They may write song lyrics or poetry or put on shows with their friends. Kids that gravitate to these kinds of activities might bloom into full-fledged writers with some support. Or they might just noodle with writing—among many other creative activities—for a year or two and then move on.
Either way, developing the art of putting words on the page is likely to benefit them throughout their academic and professional careers! Here’s a backpack-full of great ideas and resources to get them started:
1) Comic books count! Do you know there’s a huge comic-book culture out there? I bet your teen writer does! Whether a younger writer wants to team up with an artist pal or pen both drawings and text themselves, comic books could be a great way for them to tell stories. Check out Little Scribe’s article “Comic Books: A Powerful Study Tool for Teens.”
If your teen is more ambitious, they might want to dive into writing a graphic novel. Like comic books, graphic novels rely on images to tell half the story. However, graphic novels typically tell longer, more fully developed narratives than comic books. Penguin Books has a helpful graphic-novel guide titled “You Can Do a Graphic Novel.”
2) Writing fan fiction can help a young writer get their novel-writing feet wet! Fan fiction writers enter already-created fictional worlds—that of Harry Potter and crew, for example—and write their own stories based on the characters and settings in those worlds, then share their work online, building community with other fan-fic writers.
3) Virtual or actual diary- or journal-keepinggives a kid a place to dream on the page, to hear themselves think in that slightly different way that writing just for oneself produces. And the self-trust journaling builds will serve as a foundation for all their other writing opportunities, as well.
You might want to gift a teen with a physical diary or a beautifully bound journal. Or you could recommend they try an online journal platform. Penzu is just one example. On their site, they say, Whether you’re looking for a tool to record your daily emotions and activities in a reflective journal, keep track of milestones in a food diary, or even record your dreams in a dream journal, Penzu has you covered.
4) Many magazines invite young writers to submit their work. STONE SOUP is a literary magazine and website written and illustrated by kids through age thirteen. EMBERis a journal whose submission guidelines are open to authors and poets age ten and up. Print magazine TEEN INK says, Whether you’re interested in poetry, sports, movie reviews, or fiction, send us your work and let your voice be heard! And then there’s ONE TEEN STORY, an award-winning quarterly literary magazine that features the work of today’s best teen writers.
5) Did you know that NaNoWriMo has a young writers’ program? Yup! Through that program, National Novel Writing Month offers younger folks the chance to dig deep and produce a full draft of a new novel in a single month! As they say, our Young Writers Program (YWP) supports under-eighteen writers and K-12 educators as they participate in our flagship event each November, and take part in smaller writing challenges year-round.
YWP invites participants to set their word-count goal and draft their novel right on the site. The program also offers support from published authors. Sound good? You might want to buddy up with a teen writer this November. You can root for one another as you complete your daily word counts and push toward THE END!
6) Websites for kid writers abound with inspiration and creative fuel! For instance, UNDERLINED presents writing prompts, authorial advice, and literary community—all geared toward the young writer. Wattpad goes a step further. Here, according to BRIGHTLY,teens can find and follow favorite authors and release their own works as serial novels. This platform also helps young writers find an audience among its 25 million+ members!
BRIGHTLY also recommends Tumblr, pointing out that this blogging platform … doubles as a go-to for young literary enthusiasts, bookworms, and those in need of some writing motivation. Some to check out: The Writer’s Helpers (for advice on everything from grammar to plot); Writing Prompts; and John Green’s Tumblr(the Tumblr account of YA author John Green, which is just fun and inspiring).
7)It’s exciting to discover books that inspire young writers. I’ve listed three.
WRITE YOURSELF A LANTERN:Featuring lines from Elizabeth Acevedo’s THE POET X among its pages, this full-color, beautifully designed journal is perfect for readers, long-time writers, those trying their hand at poetry, or anyone with a voice all their own.
JUST WRITE: Here’s How!, by Walter Dean Myers, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, includes an afterword by Ross Workman, Walter’s teen coauthor of KICK, and covers Walter’s six-box and four-box outlines; excerpted pages from his own notebooks; and writing tips from both Walter and Ross.
THE FRUIT BOWL PROJECT, by Sarah Durkee, describes a fictional, yet still inspiring situation: The kids in 8th Grade Writer’s Workshop are awestruck when rock superstar Nick Thompson comes to talk about writing. Nick, known for his lyrics, tells the kids his secret: A song is just a bowl of fruit—one must figure out how to paint it. Nick gives the kids two weeks to tell an interesting story, reflecting his or her style. And so the Fruit Bowl Project begins. Rap, poetry, monologue, screenplay, haiku, fairy tale—and more.
8) Some YouTube videos offer advice-filled snippets specifically for young writers.
9) Programs for kid writers offer community and support. From summer writing camps to online workshops, there are many options to help a young writer take their craft to the next level. A few of these include Writopia Labs: based in NYC, a team of published authors, produced playwrights, and passionate administrators champion Writopia’s unique approach to creative youth development. Education Unlimited’s Writing Summer Camps for High School Students offers the Emerging Writers Institute, a two-week creative writing camp program to develop students’ imaginative writing across genres. Brave Writeremphasizes the support a home-schooling parent can give a young writer—but many tips and resources are applicable to any young person trying to move their writing skills ahead.
Jane knows her stuff. Here’s a little bit of it for kid writers: Writing Advice for Children and Teens, in which she offers pithy advice and invites writers John Green, Ira Glass, and Ta-Nehisi Coates to weight in, too. Together, these fine writers share some simple but deep truths—exactly the sort of truths we need to guide us as writers, whether we’re young … or not so young anymore.