Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Writing Your Way to Happiness

And now this from a recent NYT article:

The scientific research on the benefits of so-called expressive writing is surprisingly vast. Studies have shown that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory.

Now researchers are studying whether the power of writing — and then rewriting — your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness.


Those of us who have been writing get this. Whether it is strictly fiction or memoir-ish we know that we are eternally returning to those moments in our past that we haven’t got past, that we are still struggling to figure out. My character’s pain is often the pain I felt out on the school playground, my MC’s loneliness is—yup—my loneliness, my insecurity. That is the real stuff, what I’m hoping to inject into my writing.

At this blog and in my book Freeze Frame: How to Write Flash Memoir I actually encourage readers to play around with facts, with their memories to write toward the future.

From the article: “In one of the earliest studies on personal story editing, researchers gathered 40 college freshman at Duke University who were struggling academically. Not only were they worried about grades, but they questioned whether they were intellectual equals to other students at their school.

The students were divided into intervention groups and control groups. Students in the intervention group were given information showing that it is common for students to struggle in their freshman year. They watched videos of junior and senior college students who talked about how their own grades had improved as they adjusted to college.

The goal was to prompt these students to edit their own narratives about college. Rather than thinking they weren’t cut out for college, they were encouraged to think that they just needed more time to adjust.

The intervention results, published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, were startling. In the short term, the students who had undergone the story-changing intervention got better grades on a sample test. But the long-term results were the most impressive.

Students who had been prompted to change their personal stories improved their grade-point averages and were less likely to drop out over the next year . . . ”

Another study found in the journal Psychological Science found:
That of 120 married couple who were asked to write about a conflict as a neutral observer, those who explored their problems through writing showed greater improvement in marital happiness than those who did not write about their problems.

“These writing interventions can really nudge people from a self-defeating way of thinking into a more optimistic cycle  . . . .”

So today start writing your way to happiness. And if you need any encouragement, download my other book, 365 Affirmations for the Writer, where there are daily tips, prompts, and uplifting quotes to get you rolling!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Try, Try, and Try Again

Over a year ago I wrote a short short—about 1,200 words—and began to submit it—about 30 times.

I began to feel stupid. I think that comes with the rejection territory. You question your existence. Why am I even doing this? Why did I even write that sentence? You tell yourself—just quit already!

For those who don’t get it: writing is hard work. I know exactly what I need to write, how I want it to turn out—it’s getting there that’s the problem. I keep crashing and having to go back to the beginning. Now times this feeling by about 100. I have about 50 stray pieces in process—either submitting, revising, or just getting it down on paper, all concurrent, all at once. It’s like brain streaming or having too many tabs open in your head.

Then! You get a bone thrown at you. Your work finds resonance somewhere. “The Machine Has No Clothes” that short short finally found a home with Carbon Culture—a journal at the intersection of literature, art, and technology. When I saw that tag line at their website I thought—that sounds like my short piece. Thankfully the editor thought so also.

READ all about how a young intern navigates the corporate fashion world and the new technology of a 3-D printer. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Causing a Landslide

Stevie Nicks=Landslide

What was in her head? Did she know she was writing an enduring hit?

I remember when this album came out and the song “Landslide” was popular. Obviously it was about first love.

Now 40 years later (I know, crazy, right) the song is as big as it ever was. And, now it’s about life changes, how things crash and burn and yet we still go on. It is about relationships that ignite and then burn out, about the best job you’ve ever had and the worst work you’ve ever done, it is about parents getting old, sick, and dying, about children growing up, forgetting to call, then calling to come back and live in your basement.

It is about seasons. Every step of the way you hope you’ll find love and a little bit of comfort.

Did Stevie Nicks ever imagine that her song would resonate through so many generations and renditions? Did she imagine that one day she would be older? She might have aged, but she can still hit the notes.

I know in 1975 I hadn’t yet figured out life (not that I’m any closer) and I had no idea what things would be like when I was older. I don’t think I even cared. But now that I am older and the children are older too, memories swirl and I revisit where I was when I first heard “Landslide.”

For you, Daddy

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Life, Liberty, and No Swimming Allowed!

Also in the news—welfare recipients in Kansas are barred from movies, camps, and amusement parks—BUT they can buy a gun.

Kansas bans welfare recipients from seeing movies, going swimming on government’s dime

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback signed House Bill 2258 into law April 9. The measure means Kansas families receiving government assistance will no longer be able to use those funds to visit swimming pools, see movies, go gambling or get tattoos on the state’s dime. The measure also limits TANF recipients from withdrawing more than $25 per day from ATMs. HELLO! What if you need to repair your car? If like most people your TANF goes into the same bank account as your direct deposit—then how can the government really have a say in how you spend your money.

And, when was the last time you saw someone on food stamps buy lobster? Ever?

It sounds like wishful thinking.

But my point is, as a writer and someone who honors the written word, how do they do it: calling the bill the HOPE Act? Advocates for the bill defend it by saying it helps families to spend more responsibly—really? Not when you take away their choice, not when they are restricted. The HOPE Act “provides an opportunity for success,” Brownback said in a statement after signing the bill. “It’s about the dignity of work and helping families move from reliance on a government pittance to becoming self-sufficient by developing the skills to find a well-paying job and build a career.” Others say: “This is about prosperity. This is about having a great life.” REALLY? Who comes up with this stuff?! This spinshit!
Jon Stewart contrasted the bill with another Kansas bill Brownback signed that relaxes some restrictions on gun owners. “You’re poor, but you’re still an American,” Stewart said. Under the new welfare law, TANF recipients can still spend their benefit money on guns, the Wichita Eagle reported.

To read more:

Monday, April 20, 2015

Come Back To Us

In the news. Last fall I got a Kindle Fire—and now I spend way too much time playing solitaire and watching YouTube videos. A subscription to the Washington Post came gratis with the Kindle. And, I just read that
they are doubling down on their search for that missing Malaysian airjet. Isn’t that how they always refer to it? The headlines are part of my subconscious.

Yet—where are the girls? I haven’t seen any headlines about the missing girls recently except—
one year on 219 Nigerian schoolgirls are still gone. That a lot of grieving parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters.

If only the international community could put its resources behind the search for these girls. “Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai told reporters that the next phase of the search was expected to cost about 50 million Australian dollars (about $39 million in U.S. currency), according to Reuters.” I wonder how much has been spent looking for the missing girls?  Goodluck Jonathan, the former Nigerian president was defeated at the polls by Muhammadu Buhari, who promises to renew the search, but I’m afraid after one year there is very little will or interest. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

What Time Is It?

What Time Is It?

Once upon a time I heard this story:

In a small town at 12 noon the fire house always tested its emergency siren, you know blowing out the cobwebs and making sure everything worked—in case there was an emergency.

Also at 12 noon the bells in the carillon began to play.

At the diner the waitress dropped another pot of coffee for the lunch time crowd. And, at the local school the children were excited for lunch and recess, which happened at 12 noon.

In a way the whole town moved in a type of ballet, all doing their individual routines in synch with each other, according to the clock.

Then one day the announcer at the local radio station was set to retire. For thirty or so years she had sat at her desk reading the news, time, and temperature and playing records. At her retirement party the whole town came to wish her well. As they sat around chatting the fire chief and priest and the owner of the diner all lamented to her that they would miss her. How will be know when it’s 12 noon, they said and laughed?

She looked confused, then confessed. I always knew it was noon when I heard the bells ringing and the siren go off. For thirty years she had been going by their time while at the same time they had been going off of her at the radio.

I guess it’s all relative.

Like when we judge someone against what we think is the norm, only to find out there is no norm. How do we decide what is the marker in which to measure?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Food Revolution

Imagine a time before Thai. Before bureks, pierogis, pho.

That was me growing up in the 60s and 70s in the land of meat and mashed potatoes. I think the most exotic thing I ate before age 23 was pizza. Americanized pizza.

Since coming to Chicago in 1982 my palate has experienced a food revolution. Down the street from me is a gyro joint and then down the block is the best Thai food ever—Siam Noodle. Once when trying to decide with local friends where to eat I began to talk up my favorite noodle place—of course, there are hundreds here in Chicago—and the person on the other end of the phone equally advocated for theirs. Come to find out we were talking about the same restaurant. We have here in Uptown one of the BEST Ethiopian restaurants. Eating Ethiopian is an experience on par with transcendence. This weekend I visited the Lebanese Bakery a bike ride away in Andersonville. They sell the cheapest lamb and potato pies (also the spinach and feta are out of this world) for less than $2. They are as big as your hand, less than a meal but a filling snack. I’ve also had Turkish and Greek food, which share many of the same qualities though they might not want to hear that.

Even bread. I grew up eating Wonder bread. It’s a wonder I lived. It was possible to smoosh the whole loaf and roll it into a tennis-ball size. Ask me—I did it once it much to my mother’s horror. It was 90% air and chock full of unhealthy carbs. Here in Chicago you have your choice of naan, pita, several different kinds of injera, and barbari bread from Iran just to name a few. And you thought there was only white and dark.

That’s the problem: We get in a rut, and we have no idea that there is more out there. When did you discover there was a whole world of tantalizing flavors? Leave a comment!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Dust of Eden

Dust of Eden, a novel by Mariko Nagai
Book review

This past weekend I read a small novel in verse by Mariko Nagai called Dust of Eden about the forced evacuation of people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast to internee camps situated within the formidable interior—mostly land unsuitable for much else. While reading I was struck by how similar the story read next to the historical novel I wrote, Beyond Paradise, about a young girl and her family and their experiences within internee camps in the Philippines.

War brings about strange, uncontrollable circumstances.

In both instances these were civilian camps, not military or POW. In most cases the people were rounded up and ordered to live within confined spaces for an undetermined amount of time. So there was very little information and a lot of speculation about what the future might hold. The internees were told they could go back as soon as . . . but no one really believed it. Because no one knew what the outcome of the war might bring. The civilians were treated as the enemy.

Another thing the two stories had in common was lines. People lined up for everything until they felt like they had to line up for the sun to shine and for a new day to begin. In all my research for Beyond Paradise I was struck by how many primary interviews talked about queues. It was tiring, seemingly endless, and part of the de-humanizing process. You could never relax or feel at home because sooner or later you’d have to go stand in line for some basic human need whether it was food, the showers, or to see the CO about something. The dust and dirt and shortages were just a part of everyday life.

Of course the two stories differed in that the Nissan internees felt betrayed by their own government and in my book the civilians were expatriates living abroad who were rounded up by an occupier. Both felt equally alone and forgotten during the four long years of war. Entire families and lives were uprooted and eventually changed forever.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Story of Us

After 27 years of marriage I finally bought a tea kettle. Our first electric tea kettle was a hand-me-down and lasted approximately twenty years. It had a revival after we repaired the plug, but eventually the wiring in the cord went wonky. We continued to try to use it by arranging the cord a certain way to get everything to connect.

Our second kettle we bought used from a thrift store. It also lasted a number of years. The electrical went out on it too, but again we continued to use it by clicking it down a dozen or so times until it engaged and cooked water. So finally, after 27 years of domestic life, we bought a brand new kettle.

In the Story of Stuff we learn about the interconnected nature of stuff. We think we’re buying a bottle of water without realizing all the eventual consequences. And then we give ourselves cancer if we re-use the plastic bottle too often. Throwing it in the garbage has its own negatives. Recycling gives it the biggest chance of coming back again as another plastic product.

All I can say in defense of me and my husband is that you will never meet a pair of people who wear things out. We patch the holes in our clothes, re-attach buttons, polish shoes, send them to the menders, re-wash rags, cut up old clothes for rags. We do crazy stuff, not only to save money but so that we don’t have to buy stuff. We’ve picked up whole wardrobes off the ground at the marathon, shopped the free bin outside the book store, and made Whole Foods deli samples our entire lunch. The worst part is we called it a date.

After 27 years, we’re still hanging on to old stuff. He’s got me and I’ve got him.

Friday, April 3, 2015



When I first met Jill Essbaum she was a poet. Now nearly a dozen years later she is still a poet—plus a bestselling New York Times author.

The above link describes Jill as a writer of erotica. I know people who write erotica and usually they don’t use their real name. (Hey! No judgment here—these gals are making BIG money writing racy eBooks. Friends who by day write children’s lit and by night pay the bills under a pseudonym.)

More than for looking for sex in all the “wrong” places, Jill loves to uncover a pun. Word play is her forte. And, let’s face it, innuendo is one of the easiest ways to get one’s attention. It sounds like I’m writing one thing and really I’m saying something else. That kind of writing engages the whole mind because it makes you question—is it her or me who’s thinking about . . . ?

In many ways Hausfrau is straight forward. It is literature and sexy. It is suspenseful and allows for word play—such as the scenes where the questioning of grammar and the exact word drive Anna’s sessions with her psychologist. Anna, an unhappily married housewife living as an expatriate in a tiny town outside of Zurich has three outlets: her Swiss German language classes, her therapy sessions with a Jungian analysis, and her lovers. That last one is a bit layered, as there were many, secrets of them.

At Goodreads there are atleast 12 pages of reviews and at Amazon there are 94 customer reviews. And, here is my secret: Jill sent me a PDF last fall. I read it while vacationing in Sweden. Imagine reading about the plight and sexual misadventures of Anna, the main character, by moonlight and the light given off by a campfire. The next day the story stayed with me while hiking 20 or so kilometers.

Now I’m not going to go into a ton of background, though I could about Jill and our years of long phone conversations; she had her own unbearable sadness just like Anna Benz. She also at times felt like a stranger in her own skin while living abroad. The Jill I know was/is always looking for signs. For dominos on her morning walk, or marbles, or playing cards. Just like messages inside fortune cookies or the prize inside Cracker Jack, she knew they were out there in the ordinary. One only has to look. And, that is how Jill writes—leaving little trails of words in the midst of ordinariness. Hausfrau, though the character of Anna spirals out of control, is someone we all can relate to. Her insecurities, that feeling of otherness, the woman searching for meaning (in all the wrong places). She is so empty inside, you can hear her echo when she speaks.

Thanks Jill for pursuing Anna, for pursuing a genre you were new to, for going (a lot) outside your comfort zone to write a book that has left many readers equally uncomfortable. For Jill there has been a happy ending: a New York Times bestselling author.