Stretching My Writer Muscles, Literally

by Karen Deger McChesney

Lauren, my massage therapist: “Any areas that you want me to especially work on?”

Me: (Pointing to my triceps and forearms.) “Here and here. They’ve really been hurting.”

Lauren: “Have you been writing more?”

Her question surprised me. Lauren listened intensely as I rambled about revising, which I rarely do outside of writer circles. Then, she got her usual twinkle in her eye and briefly explained why my aches were from writing. My pride sunk. I wanted to hear that my aches were from my weightlifting or something else. Not writing! Unfair. Yes, my aches could be much worse. But, from writing? A year ago, I committed to increasing my weekly writing time – and now I have an achy-breaky upper body? Darn! As my mind melted into the land of massage, it made more sense. Like Natalie Goldberg says: “Writing is physical…like an athletic activity.”

After my massage, Lauren showed me stretches and mentioned that she works with writers (and how much she enjoys “them”). Wow! What a coincidence!

I recently interviewed Lauren about stretches for writers and to motivate myself to un-hunch and stretttcccchhhhh! Lauren has been a massage therapist and cranio-sacral practitioner (a hands-on therapy to enhance the body’s natural capacity for healing) for over 25 years, and she has taught yoga for 18 years to a wide variety of people in health clubs, yoga studios, senior centers, and other settings.

What ails writers? What do they come to you for?

Stiffness and pain in their neck, shoulders, low back and hamstring. I find that writers get so wrapped up in their writing, they go for hours without moving.

Name your top tips for writers:

1st, set a timer to go off every hour.

2nd, then, get out of your chair and stretch.

3rd, do gentle twists while you’re sitting.

Describe the correct way to sit at a computer:

Sit in a chair that allows your hips to be a little above your knees. Ideally, you want your body to be stacked, which means in alignment – your shoulder joints over your hip joints and your ears over your shoulders. Then, always be looking straight ahead at your screen, not down. If you’re not at a desk, put a pillow on your lap to lift up your laptop closer to eye level. Keep changing positions and trying different chairs.

How do we maintain good posture, especially when writing for hours and hours?

I tell my yoga students: imagine moving your right shoulder blade toward your left hip pocket and vice versa. This will open up your shoulders.

 What’s a good stretching sequence for writers?

 CHAIR TWIST: To the right, then left. Hold each side 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 WALL DOG: Hold 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EAGLE POSE: Left elbow over right, then vice versa. For maximum stretch, press elbows together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Any other stretches to add to our sequence?

PALM AND WRIST STRETCH: Push both palms and all fingers into a wall simultaneously. Hold 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TRICEP STRETCH: Bend left arm over, touch fingertips on left shoulder, then right hand over head and touch left elbow. Vice versa. Hold each side 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ARMS OVER HEAD: Hold 15-30 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What stretches should writers do while sitting?

1: CHAIR TWIST 

2: RUBBERBAND STRETCH:

Wrap rubberband around outside of fingertips.

 Then, spread thumb and fingers out. Hold 10-15 seconds.

 

 

 

 

Are there any other aches that you’ve noticed in writers?

When they’re into a really intense session (and feeling a lot of emotion) or writing for extremely long periods, they often clench their jaw. This can cause neck issues and pain. Try this: Move the tip of your tongue to the middle of the roof of your mouth. Hold for 10-20 seconds.

Your words of wisdom?

Experiment and do stretches that feel best for you.

What is your current yoga class schedule?

7-8am Wednesdays – Living Yoga Studio, Denver; 8:30-9:30am Fridays – Sol Center for Radiant Living, Georgetown.

Special thanks to Lauren Hess for her time and commitment to writers. For more information about her massage therapy and yoga class schedules, contact Lauren at lhmoscow@hotmail.com.

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by | December 6, 2017 · 3:04 pm

A Year of Logging

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

Last October, when the leaves were turning raspberry red, lemon yellow, and orange orange, I embarked on a serious mission to make myself feel more like a real writer. (www.inthewritersweb.com, Nov. 2016.) Although I took my writing seriously, it didn’t seem like I was doing enough. Like you, I spent my time setting yearly goals, working on a variety of manuscripts, submitting to agents for feedback, participating in writing/critique groups, taking classes, and going to conferences. I read blogs and books on craft. I wrote articles like this one.

But despite this dedication, I still had no offers of representation or publication to show for myself. I had gotten very close with a few agents and editors, but that golden ticket still eluded me. And, I had reached a crossroads – give up on the whole shebang or amp up my life as a writer. Obviously, I chose the second option. (First sign of being a real writer!) Now I needed a new way to prove to myself that I was getting closer; that I was doing everything possible to increase my odds.

So I came up with an idea. I decided to keep a daily log of everything I did that related to my life as a writer. As a teacher, I loved leafing through my over-stuffed lesson plan books to see how much I had accomplished with my students. There were scribbles in the corners of cramped daily squares and tattered pieces of paper shoved in between the pages. Everyday had been a whirlwind of accomplishments!

Only with writing, planning out my week in advance often went awry. On some days, it seemed like I got very little done. I’d spend hours rewriting one chapter when I thought I’d be able to do four. Or I’d plan to do a small bit of research, get caught up in the subject matter and read articles on the topic for an entire morning. Finally, it came to me out of the clear blue – a totally different approach to this problem. I would log about what I did after I did it, not before. This way, I wouldn’t be disappointed if I didn’t accomplish what I thought I should have.

I got to work. I bought a large calendar/daytimer/notebook. Then, at the end of each day, I jotted down whatever I did to further my life as a writer. And, after a year of doing this, here’s what I discovered:

 

  1. I was doing a lot. Seeing months of squares filled in with writing activities convinced me that I was doing all sorts of things to further my life as a writer. I included everything from working on my novels and going to conferences to doing research and reading books in my genre.
  2. I developed a habit. According to many experts, it takes at least 21 days to develop a new habit. And for most of us, it’s longer. By writing in my log every day for an entire year, I made being a writer a conscious part of every day.
  3. Reading counts. You must read to write. I made sure to log about the books I read, both in and out of my genre and on craft. Then I entered the titles onto my Goodreads page. I also included blogs, articles, and emails to my writing colleagues.
  4. Rewriting is very time-consuming. By writing down exactly what I did each day, I could see how long it was taking me to revise my novel. A looonnnngggg time. There was one week when I worked on my first page for five days in a row!
  5. I am part of a writing community. I saw how often I met with other writers, both individually and in groups. I included in-person writing groups, conferences and classes, as well as online blogs, workshops, emails, and texts. It was A LOT!!!
  6. I am improving my craft. I recorded all the classes I took, conferences I attended, books I read on craft, and the ways I was implementing changes into my manuscripts. So important.
  7. I took on more of a leadership role in the RMC-SCBWI. My board position as Exhibits Coordinator turned into the PAL LIAISON this year. Being involved at this level makes me feel more professional and has also has introduced me to an inspirational group of writers!

At a recent writers conference, I was thrilled to share a lunch table with renowned editor, and author of THE MAGIC WORDS, Cheryl Klein. When Cheryl asked if I wrote every day, I told her about my writing log. She liked the concept and said that a daily writing practice is the key to getting published. So maybe I’m on my way!

But here’s the main thing I discovered by keeping the log… getting published is only one part of living a writer’s life. It’s an extremely important part of the journey, but the things I wrote down in my log squares, … those are the things that make me a “real” writer. And here’s the surprising takeaway – I don’t feel the need to continue logging. A year of doing this has served its purpose. I am living the life of a writer. And I have a notebook full of scribbled-in boxes to prove it.

 

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The thing about “The thing about jellyfish”

By Susan Wroble

Ali Benjamin’s book The thing about Jellyfish has rightly won well over a dozen awards, from National Book Award Finalist to National Public Radio’s “Great Read of the Year” list. I loved the story, with its themes of friendship and grief, and its sections neatly divided by the parts of the scientific method. However, it’s not the story that startled, then amazed and finally inspired me. That came from the acknowledgements section at the back of the book.

“This story,” Benjamin wrote, “was born from a failure.” A few years earlier, she had become captivated by jellyfish. She dove into their world, learning everything she could about jellyfish and poured it all into a story. She submitted to a magazine. The magazine was interested, and kept it.

Then Benjamin waited… for a year. A year of waiting to hear. A year of waiting for her story to be published. And after a year, she did hear. The magazine no longer wanted it. The story was rejected.

 

I know what I would have done. I would have cried, then forwarded the rejection on to my writing group, The Story Spinners, knowing that they would give me the encouragement and support to keep going. Getting things published is tough, and a support group of people going through the same long process of rejection collecting makes the journey much easier to bear.

I’m not sure if Ali Benjamin did any of that. What she did do was keep going. Despite the wait, despite the rejection, she wasn’t willing to give up on jellyfish. She just delved deeper, moving beyond researching jellyfish to researching jellyfish experts. She took notes and continued to learn.

This incredible, award-winning story was what emerged. Had Benjamin’s original article been published, I am sure that it would have been fascinating. But it wouldn’t have been this. To have this book materialize out of failure served, for me, as a type of buoy – showing that what springs from the ashes of failure may be beyond our wildest dreams.

 

 

 

 

 

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Finding the Positive – Conference Edition

I was recently asked what piece of advice I might give for new conference goers. Lots of things came to mind but the most personal experience I had could be boiled down to, “It is to your benefit to find the positive.” The fact is, you are likely to sit in a session where you think, “I know this.” You may end up in a session where you think, despite the fact that you read the conference description, “This just isn’t for me.” But I highly recommend that when you are in those situations, you do the best you can to find the thing that is relevant, that you didn’t know, that will make it a good connection and a good use of your time.

At one conference, I straight up messed it up.

What I heard: “Everyone clear out of the room while we set up lunch tables. We will reopen the doors when we are ready.”

What I didn’t hear: “And when we do, each agent, editor, and author in attendance will be sitting at their own table and you can choose to sit with whoever you want, first come, first serve, no adding chairs to tables.”

So I wondered why everyone was rushing back into the lunch room, but I had decided that what I needed was a little bit of sun and a stretch of my legs, so I went for a quick walk outside around the hotel parking lot, called a friend, and relaxed before coming back in.

And then I realized my mistake. The only seat that I saw that was left was for an author who wrote historical middle grade fiction. I was at the conference focusing on picture books, and while I had contemplated writing fiction, my genre would be fantasy. No clear connection here.

But there are no lemons at conference! I sat at the table with the intention of talking to my fellow creators (authors and illustrators) and having a nice lunch. And then I dug a little deeper. There are connections between historical fiction and fantasy. For example, world building is key in both, as you seek to introduce readers to a place they have never experienced. We had a great conversation that I found to be valuable.

My determination to make everything I experienced something positive immediately paid off – at that table I met a woman, we hit it off, and she invited me to join her critique group. THIS very critique group, in fact. My missing out on being able to choose a table, and having a table chosen for me, gave me new insight and a critical piece to my writing journey.

So when at conference (and I hope to see you at this year’s Letters and Lines!), don’t leave it to the presenters and lecturers – I encourage you to find the relevance, the connection, the link to your own work and process even if it isn’t immediately obvious, to make it the best experience it can be.

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On the Road to Find My Story

Each fall, my good friend Martha and I choose a theme to explore and then we read all we can about the topic. Then, come summer, we take a trip to further explore all that we have learned. These yearly “theme trips” provide inspiration for my writing.

It began with our “12-year-old Boy Tour of England.” Martha and I made our pre-teen sons read and research, then took them to England. We did everything 12-year-old boys would want to do: torture chambers, hedge mazes, knight and castles, Jack-the-Ripper, Sherlock Holmes and Stonehenge. Those boys, now young adults, will always remember the combination of focused reading and exploring. They knew more about the places we visited than the tour guides. Young Alex said to me at the time, “It’s really better in person because it makes it real!”

Since then, Martha and I have “made it real” on our yearly theme trips. We went to New York City to explore the theme of “Immigration,” visiting the Lower East Side tenements and Ellis Island. The “Civil Rights Tour” took us on the Selma to Montgomery Trail, to a Birmingham Baptist church and to a Memphis balcony. A “Native American” theme sent us to the Wounded Knee site on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and to the Crazy Horse Monument in South Dakota. Over the last decade we have done many other trips- “Jane Austen” in the English countryside, “Prehistoric Peoples of the Southwest” in Colorado and New Mexico and “Abraham Lincoln” in Springfield, Illinois and Washington DC.

The trips help me to direct my reading and provide me with a thought provoking topic for the year. I start my preparations with nonfiction- reading encyclopedia articles and books, then I move on to primary source materials. My favorite part of preparing for a trip is reading any relevant adult, middle grade, and children’s fiction I can find. I focus on the way the authors integrate historical details and how they portray culture and place into their books. All this allows me to get the most out of the trip and to understand how to improve my own writing.

I’ve just returned from our “Underground Railroad” trip that we chose for our theme this year. We were inspired by a family story about one of my abolitionist Quaker ancestors who harbored freedom seekers escaping slavery. We went to the small town of Vandalia, Michigan for “Underground Railroad Days” and to Detroit’s sites that memorialize the dangerous journey from slavery to freedom. This year’s trip focused on those who helped strangers and broke the law of the land because it was the right thing to do. Michigan, as I learned, was an abolitionist hotbed and the crossroads of secret pathways that led to Canada and freedom.

It was a sobering topic. The realities of our nation’s shameful history of slavery are painful to explore indepth. I learned more about the inhumane conditions that made enslaved people risk finding a path to freedom. The people who helped them were heroic. Much of the story of the underground railroad will be forever hidden, because it was secret and dangerous. But some stories remain and are important to understanding our collective history.

When I am on one of our trips, I look for the stories that are hiding below the surface and have particular resonance for me. I note details that I could never know from just reading—the feeling of standing where a historical event took place, the details of the landscape, and the atmosphere that surrounds a place.

I never know if the topic I have learned about during the year will find a place in my writing. Sometimes, our yearly theme is just for me and satisfies my own curiosity about the world. I understand more about our world and its complexities. My compassion for others grows as a result of pursuing a deep and connected understanding of a topic. Other times, I discover a story that needs a voice and a storyteller. I try to imagine the story that will help a young person understand more about a time and place. This is when I find inspiration and focus for my writing for children.

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The Story Spinners

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A Summer of Sequels

As a kindergarten teacher, I am gearing up to go back to school in a couple of weeks. In preparation, one of the items on my to-do list was hit the bookstore to find some good reads. When I arrived, I felt like I struck gold because I found a few of my favorite titles came out with sequels and they did not disappoint. One great thing about reading books from the same author is the ability to compare and contrast. I think my little ones will be entertained and delighted to compare these titles! Caution: spoiler alert!

Mother Bruce/Hotel Bruce

Good ole grumpy Bruce the bear is back with a whole new problem. He returns from migration (with his geese from the original story) only to find mice have transformed his house into a hotel. You gotta love Bruce because in the end, he may just be a giant teddy bear at heart who can find room for a few visitors to stay.

If You Ever Wanted to Bring an Alligator to School DON’T!/ If You Ever Want to Bring a Piano to the Beach DON’T!/ If You Ever Want to Bring a Circus to the Library DON’T!

These stories have an If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, feel. The charming alligator lover is back to show readers why you shouldn’t bring a circus to the library (they are for sitting quiet and reading)! And why its a bad idea to take a piano to the beach (when your mom asks you what you want to bring, she means a frisbee or a shovel)!

What Do You Do with an Idea?/What Do You Do with a Problem?

If you thought ideas made you nervous, wait until a problem comes along. Just like ideas, you can’t ignore problem because they grow (and unlike ideas, you don’t want that to happen). But when you tackle a problem, you may find it really isn’t so scary after all.

I love to get my kindergarten class excited about reading. The best tool in my toolbox for this task is a great book to share. What are some of your favorite picture books?

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It’s The Dog’s Fault

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

I am not a morning person. I hit snooze when the alarm goes off and pull the covers over my head for five extra minutes of luxurious, dreamy sleep. I’ve always been this way. In elementary school, I was  the last one out the door. On some days, my dad would actually leave and go pick up the rest of the carpool before coming back to get me. In high school, I did my homework in front of the television with the late night talk show hosts as company. And in college, I was known for writing papers long after my housemates were in bed. I wasn’t much for the infamous “all-nighter,” but it did happen now and then.

Years later, when I entered the work-world as a teacher, I needed to make changes. I had to get up early. My first job required taking a bus and two trains (the red and green lines in Boston) to my school, setting up for the day, meeting with colleagues, and greeting students, all before 8:00 am. And when I became a mom, well, that’s another story. Late nights and early mornings were a way of life.

But now, I am retired from teaching and my children are long gone. I can create my own schedule, the one I was born to live – go to bed at 11:00 p.m. (after Stephen Colbert’s monologue) and get up at 7:00 a.m. to meet my walking group by 7:15. It’s the perfect life. Except that my fourteen-year-old dog has decided to get up at sunrise. Every single morning.

I love this dog. She’s the dearest, friendliest, loviest, golden retriever you could ever imagine. Her name is Berni and everyone adores her. Especially me. But lately, this devoted ball of orange fur is getting up at 5:13 am. Okay, well sometimes it’s more like 5:29. But still, it is VERY EARLY. And for some reason, she only comes to my side of the bed. She totally ignores my husband (who is snoring loudly and doesn’t hear a thing) and waits for me to wake up. And, being the good mommy that I am, I get up, give her a cup of food, and let her outside to do her business. Only this dog is not interested in a quick run to the bathroom. She is WIDE AWAKE. She sniffs the grass, goes hunting for rabbits or squirrels or chipmunks or voles or whatever wildlife is also up at this ridiculous hour.

She wasn’t always like this. For most of her life, she lived by our schedule. But lately, as she approaches 100 (in people years), she’s up with the roosters. Like a farm dog, or an insomniac. Mostly she’s hungry, famished, in fact. And those yummy fish and potato dog food nuggets are calling her name. So, I go to the bathroom. I go outside. I watch her wander in the yard. I let her back in. And guess what? Now, I am wide awake, too. And it is only 5:45 am.

It was during one of these early morning strolls, when I was pulling weeds in the yard while Berni sniffed wildflowers, that I came to a big realization. This is the time of day when many highly successful and productive writers slink down to their studios and crank out a ton of pages. I don’t know about you, but I’ve read scads of articles, and heard many speeches, by authors who insist that they do their very best work before the sun is up. And every time I hear this, I say to myself, “MUST BE NICE, BUT I WILL NEVER be one of those people.” I envied those industrious authors, but knew that early morning writing was not for me. Until now.

Because here I am at my computer writing this blog. And it is only 5:48 in the morning. It’s the dog’s fault, of course. But guess what? I kinda like this time of day. It’s quiet and I actually am clear-thinking and more efficient. I’m writing faster and better and there are very few distractions. It’s too early to run the laundry (wouldn’t want to wake up that sleeping husband) and there’s nobody to call. And here’s the clincher, there are no new emails to read since I checked the night before.

Who would have thought I would become one of those early morning writers? Not I, said the little red hen and everyone else in the world who knows me. So thank you, sweet Berni. Thank you for nudging me with your big wet nose and breathing in my face at the crack of dawn so I could get up and… write!

It’s a good thing I love coffee. And afternoon naps. And beautiful sunrises.

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My Kind of NaNoWriMo

As I’ve shared before, I’ve tried NaNoWriMo. And I’ve not succeeded at NaNoWriMo.

And then the most amazing thing happened.

NaNoWriMo gave me something new to do. Camp!

 

Whereas traditional NaNo is well defined (50,000 words, win or fail), Camp NaNo is a choose your own adventure.

  • Don’t think of your manuscript as being x number of words? Set a goal by pages.
  • Are you a poet? Set a goal by lines.
  • Do you want to capture all the time you spend on writing – drafting, reading about craft, revising etc.? Set a goal by hours, or even minutes.
  • Are you ready to draft your book but you know 50k is too much? Set a unique goal by words.

You also get cabins – you can join a cabin of people you don’t know, or create your own private cabin. Both come with a clear view of your cabin mate’s stats and private message boards to cheer each other on.

The first time I did Camp, I set a goal for 30 hours, with the hope of working on writing an hour a day. Even though I knew I was ready to write something, a word goal just didn’t feel right, because I didn’t know what it would be – was I going to start my middle grade magic story (likely to be around 40k) or my YA fantasy (likely to be 65k)? Also, I wasn’t really ready to start drafting – I knew this time around I wanted to spend more time ‘in development.’

The goal was actually a lot more ambitious then it even sounds – I was going away for a week long work trip so I already knew there would be at least 5 hours I would have to make up. Along with the job, I have young children – a little more than an hour a day on average would be tough. But my cabin mates were there, ready to cheer my on (and I was ready to give them the pep talks they needed).

And so I started. Slowly. Truthfully it was hard at first. I still wasn’t sure what I was working on so I felt stuck – stuck on what to pick, because I needed to get started. Camp NaNo also includes project stats and tracking, and they show you how you’re doing compared to the daily average you’d need to hit your goal. I was looking at an empty page and a graph that showed me clearly just how far behind I was.

But then things started to open up. I decided that reading and watching videos about craft counted as part of my hourly goal – it was helping me improve as a writer and I finally got to see that bar graph crawl upward in the right direction.

That movement improved my mood, and with some of the new tools I was gaining I started drafting out my two books to see which was more inspiring. I drafted a query letter to see if I was gripped by how I thought the book would flow. I picked which book I would work on. I watched Brandon Sanderson’s  course videos while I pedaled on my stationary bike. That last week I spent hours at the local coffee shop, writing and craft learning (my mother-in-law was in town, and she watched the kids).

And I did it. I did it! I hit that 30 hours, was declared a winner, and earned my badge.

And I’m still going. I know what book I’m working on, and I’m making strides. And now it’s time for another camp! This time I’m much more in the generation and writing phase of my novel, but I’m still going for a 30 hour goal because I love the flexibility of knowing that sitting and writing notes and noodling about my characters counts toward my goals.

See you around the campfire!

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Still wondering after all these years…

Reading the Sunday Chicago Tribune was an all-day affair in our house. By dinner time, sections of the paper were scattered everywhere – on the kitchen and dining room tables, the living room floor, on beds…

I remember my brothers and me racing out the front door to the bottom of our driveway to get the paper. The first one to get the paper was the first to get to read the comics.

I could never get enough of Andy Capp, Archie, Beetle Bailey, Broom-Hilda, Cathy, Brenda Starr, Blondie, Funky Winkerbean, Peanuts… All week, I quoted the characters and re-told their stories at the dinner table, at school….and wondered, what would happen next. Now, it seems crazy to wait an entire week to find out what’ll happen next. But, I fell in love with all the guessing, predicting, and wondering.

In less than a hundred words, each comic strip provoked me, entertained me, and mystified me. Oh, and the artwork! I was completely fascinated by the colors of the characters clothes, hats, shoes, everything.

My family didn’t discuss what we read in the Sunday paper. We just read and went about our business. It was a rather quiet day. As a teen, I couldn’t wait to read the editorial pages. The letters to the editor were my favorite. I always tried to picture the writers, where they lived, how they dressed… Sometimes, I imagined meeting them.

I don’t remember us reading books, other than occasionally skimming through a set of Encyclopedia Britannica that collected dust on our basement shelf. To me, reading was what I did all day at school, for homework and well, something that I had to do.

My parents didn’t read us bedtime stories. Actually, I never thought of story as being contained in a book. But, looking back, I always knew story. It filled our two-story house.

Story was what my brothers and me passed around the dinner table every night. It was the entrée. My brothers reenacted scenes from The Marx Brothers and Star Wars; I delighted in laughing, making up stories, imitating teachers and telling what happened in school. I clearly knew story was something you make up, can’t wait to tell – and that it gets better every time you tell it, especially when my brothers would chime in, add on, and we’d just keep going, weaving our tales. No one ever said “stop” or “stay focused” or “don’t do that”. We just let it rip. It was a loud feast of one “and then, and then” after another; it was what we did naturally.

On a recent visit with one of my brothers, we told stories for hours. You know, the kind that make you laugh till your stomach hurts. I lost track of time. We let it rip. It felt just right; it was dang fun! I didn’t want our storytelling to end.

I think it’s why I write and keep revising. I don’t want it to end. I’m still in love with all the guessing, wondering, and still mystified by the art of writing.

How about you? Why do you write or do other art?

 

“I never thought Cathy would get married.” –Cathy Guisewite, author of the comic strip, Cathy.

 

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