Retreating to Reconnect

A view of the lake and connecting waterway.

A view of the lake and connecting waterway.

April and May are reflective times of year for me. I often dwell on goals and achievements still unreached so I can set new goals, prioritize, and move forward. Interestingly, it has become a time to reconnect with past publishers. Not quite a week ago, I received an email from an educational publisher I worked with regularly for many years. The same happened with another publisher about a year ago. It’s even more interesting (and amazing) that this happened just before I left for a retreat and—perhaps due to the events/activities at the retreat—I received a

Beautiful banyan trees all around the property.

Beautiful banyan trees all around the property.

new assignment from this company two days after I returned home.

Arriving at the retreat house.

Arriving at the retreat house.

Feeling pulled in many directions and needing a moment (or many) of clarity, I made last-minute plans to car pool with a small group of friends also headed to Our Lady of Florida Retreat Center on the east coast. It was the best weekend I’ve had in five

Inspiring architecture. Columns look to me like "monks" holding up the roof and floor of the dormitory wings.

Inspiring architecture. Columns look to me like “monks” holding up the roof and floor of the dormitory wings.

years. (That’s about the time my father became so ill and much of my time centered around writing, teaching, and getting meals to him, or simply spending time with him.) I needed the break. I needed the peace, the fellowship, the downtime (no WiFi and I chose to limit phone use). I had time to think through life (and writing) puzzles and returned home restored and ready to reconnect—on a fresh frequency.

What I saw at the top of stairs before turning left toward my room.

What I saw at the top of stairs before turning left toward my room.

Those who follow my writing and workshop info know that I am drawn to nature to recharge. The grounds of this retreat center were beautiful. So was the architecture and art throughout the retreat house, dormitories, and grounds. I came away fed–physically, mentally, and spiritually. I cannot wait to go back!

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File under: Encouragement

SmileI found it, though I hadn’t realized it was lost. It was tucked in the back of an infrequently used file drawer and browned with age at the edges. The label had long ago dried and peeled off. I was weeding and shifting files anyway and tossed the entire thing toward the recycling bin. Luckily, I missed and the contents spilled onto my office floor.

A few greeting cards and photos caught my eye. This was enough for me to paw through the other papers, some still inside the brittle folder: jokes that had circulated around the office I’d worked in (back before we began “spamming” friends on email with such things), MSS with encouraging comments from my crit group, champagne rejection letters, print outs of emailed messages with an author I’d met at a conference, and a copy of my first ever acceptance letter–for two items at once, to appear in different issues of a children’s magazine.

perseverenceI gathered the spilled contents, returning all to the worn folder and placed it in the “keep” pile. This was my “smile file,” as the faded ink indicated, and I’d long ago forgotten about it. I remembered creating it when I was just starting as a freelance writer. I got the idea after reading an article in a writing magazine by an oft-published writer who had created a “warm fuzzies folder.” She placed in it any items that would boost her spirit when repeated rejections got her down.

In my folder, I added whatever would bring a smile to my lips and create a metaphorical flotation device for the storms of publishing.

After I’d shifted the file drawers and thinned their contents, I returned to the smile file to look more closely at the items within. It was interesting to see how they changed over the course of a decade as technology became more a part of our lives. Handwritten notes left by a roommate or co-worker, motivational quotes, an encouraging card from my mother gave way to computer print-outs or flyers for a crit group or book signing to photos and name tags from writing conferences and presentations. Tucked in the bottom near the back was the file label that had fallen off. “Forward File” was neatly typed on it.

what-nextYes, this file had provided the smiles and encouragement to help me continue moving forward as I acquired publishing credits and built my freelance career. The contents kept me going.
I closed the folder and filed it at the front of the two-drawer cabinet next to my desk. I’ll add some recent items to it and make a mental note to flip through the contents occasionally. After all, we can all use a little encouragement now and again, a reminder to keep treading water toward warmer currents.

What do you do to keep your spirits up when life’s storms rain down?

Looking Back to Move Forward

I’m making my list and checking it twice. Yes, I know Christmas is over. No, I haven’t overindulged in eggnog. And, no, I haven’t bumped my head and now think I’m Saint Nick. But I am creating goals for the coming year.

Reflecting on where you’ve been in order to make plans for where you’d like to be is something I learned to do right out of college. I landed a job at a mid-sized corporation that was rapidly growing (and have management in their early thirties), and every year we had “Make It Happen” days to plan corporate, department, and personal goals.

An article I wrote based on what I learned at those "Make It Happen" corporate events.

An article I wrote based on what I learned at those “Make It Happen” corporate events.

I learned to begin by making four lists: accomplishments, failures/misses, big dreams, SAM goals (that last stands for specific, achievable, and measurable). Over the decades I have adapted this “process” to include a fifth list. It’s my first list.

1) Begin with gratitude. List everything you can think of–great and small. Challenge yourself to make this as long as possible. Aim for 25 items. For example, I list:

  • the silence of the early morning on a dew-covered golf course (I can see Tee 3 from my lanai)
  • an abundance of westerly sunshine in my living room every afternoon
  • books in every room
  • my health (no meds)
  • watching wildlife on my walks
  • listening to birdsong in the mornings
  • listening to frogs and crickets in the evenings

Once you have a few things on paper it becomes easier to think of things and add items.

Think of all the "victories" great and small you achieved this year. Challenge yourself to think of several dozen.

Think of all the “victories” great and small you achieved this year. Challenge yourself to think of several dozen.

2) Make an accomplishments list. Again, list any size achievement (and you can look at goals lists from other years to do this). And, I get silly–listing minor events just for the fun of it. For example, I have a variety for my list:

  • interviewed about The Right To Counsel for CitiesTour program on BookTV/CSPAN2 (a highlight of my year)
  • getting involved in Marco Island Writers group
  • conducting seven summer reading program library visits
  • reorganizing my office
  • finally recycling my dad’s cellphones
  • finding a new venue for writing workshops

These two lists alone can go far in setting a positive mind frame for the next steps. Making these lists are quick ways to reflect on the past year. They also help in jogging memory, especially small items from early in the year. (Of course, I have the benefit of reading these items in my journal and planner.)

3) Make a Dream Big list. Spend time thinking of and listing what you’d like to accomplish in the new year. Think of this as a preliminary goals list. This is for your eyes only, so dream big. Write each as if it has happened, (as if this IS your accomplishments list for 2015.) Don’t allow the inner critic to tell you your dream is impractical, unattainable, a pipe dream. (This IS the dream big list.) For these second and third lists, I challenge myself to come up with more than 15 items on each. In fact, I try to outdo the year before, so this year I’m aiming for 25.

4) Disappointments List. Now you’ll make a list of the goals you didn’t reach. While this may not be as fun as the previous lists, it should be enlightening. Just do yourself a favor and do not judge. (Gag that inner critic.) This list is easy for me since I have a journal ornament which has become a tradition. Each year when I take down the tree, I list my hopes for the new year. Sadly, a few of the SAME goals have been listed for the past four years. Don’t dwell on the negative–this list is to help you gain perspective. The point of all these lists combined is to help you reflect on the past year–the ups and the downs. The misses and disappointments can help you create both realistic goals and the desire to follow through.
Since I have done the above for several years, I have the benefit of looking at past lists to see that I have made progress–a LOT of progress n fact.

5) Create New Year’s Goals. Now that you’ve made all four lists, from the fanciful (dreams) and fun (accomplishments) to the misses and disappointments, you should now set five goals. But this is key: not only will you get a goal, you will also decide what steps are needed to achieve each goal. And you will then create an action plan for each step. It helps to think of this as creating short-term and long-term goals. The action steps help make each goal achievable. (If you can’t figure how you will take steps to meet a goal, it is probably not attainable–at this point.)

Dream

The difference between a dream and goal is the ACTION you take to make it so. (Advice shared with my college FYE students.)

It also alerts you to a goal that is dependent upon other people for you to achieve it. For example, getting an agent and receiving a huge publishing contract is dependent on a lot of factors out of your control. When you create the actions steps to meet this “goal” you’ll realize that you can do a lot of things that will move you toward achieving publication (polishing your manuscript, researching agents who rep your type of book), but they have no guaranteed results. NOTE here that these “unrealistic” goals can remain on the dreams list. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming of getting a great agent and a huge contract (and according to The Secret, daydreaming about it creates the positive vibrations to help it manifest). But the point of setting clear and attainable goals is so you can take action to achieving them.

Once you’ve created action steps, your goals list will be longer than 5 items (another reason I aim for a smaller list of goals). They will also likely be specific, attainable, and measurable because you’ve used your four lists to reflect on the past year to ensure your make progress in the new year.

Have fun, happy writing, and best wishes for productive and prosperous 2015!

The Longest Night

“A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.” –Steve Martin

winterwoods-MimiLuikIf you’re in the northern hemisphere, tonight (Sunday, 21 December 2104) is Winter Solstice. Winter officially arrives at 23:03 p.m. EST (that’s 6 o’clock in the evening on the east coast of the United States). The days now begin to lengthen. For those who love the snow and cold of winter, it’s time for rejoicing. Winter is here. For those who dread the frigid conditions and wild weather of winter, this is still good news since each days draws us closer to the warmer temps of springtime. (But, our coldest days are still ahead of us since the earth continues to lose more heat than it gains during “daytime” for several weeks yet. So just hang in there.)

Equinox-orbitsThis year, I’m intrigued by Winter Solstice for several reasons, one of which (no surprise) relates to research for a few of my fiction projects. (You know I love my research.) For one project, my characters need to know Latin (which means I need to learn some phrases) and while surfing the information highway, I discovered something I did not know: the origin of solstice is from the Latin solstitium meaning “sun (sol) stoppage (-stitium). During the winter solstice, the sun’s path reaches its lowest point in the sky. At noontime, the sun is directly overhead on Winter Solstice. But for a few days before and after the solstice, the sun appears to be in the same place each place. It looks “stalled” and this is how the name came to be.

sun treeThe other reason Winter Solstice has intrigued me is because of its history and celebrations surrounding it. Again, I have another fiction project that is fantasy based and so I’ve been creating holiday celebrations for these characters. Learning about Yule and Winter Solstice traditions led to exploring how Christmas is celebrated in different cultures. This led to other winter holidays and they all made me see connections–the springboard to creativity–for fictional winter celebrations in books, games, and other entertainment. For example, the Feast of Winter Veil and Greatfather Winter in World of Warcraft and Hogswatch from Discworld.

In addition to enjoying the preparations for this year’s Christmas (and New Year’s) celebrations, I’m having fun weaving traditions, customs, and repurposed details into the beliefs and festivities my characters will take part in. Even if your stories are set in the present world, note your own traditions (and those you’ve heard friends share) and select a few customs for your characters. Holidays and traditions (and a character’s reaction to them) are great ways to reveal a life-like character to readers.

Happy holidays, and have fun writing!

Scent-sational Holidays

It’s no wonder I focus so much on sensory detail in my writing workshops (and in my writing) since I naturally key into sound and scent. I was reminded of this as I decorated for the holidays. It’s not just the tradition of listening to Christmas carols while we decorate either.

musicalMost of my ornaments and decorations trigger childhood memories, especially those items given to me by my mother, so decorating turns into time for nostalgia. But this year I realized that many of the ornaments make sounds–bells are most common–and I have more than a few decorations with wind-up music boxes that play tinny versions of Christmas carols. Many of the decorations also include potpourri or scented candles. I recall my college days when bayberry candles were a staple of gift giving and I still buy that scent for holiday candles.

This year, as I miss my father, I find myself also missing my mother and have been flooded with memories of her holiday preparations. These began with baking (and freezing cookies) in early November. While we were at school, she began baking and decorating dozens of pinwheels and sugar cookies. I still love the smell of entering a house and smelling the mild scent of crisped sugar, nutmeg and vanilla, with undertones of chocolate. There were always nibbles of cookies (which she claimed got broken or burned) as after-school snacks.

pumpkinpiesAs Thanksgiving neared, the scents of apples, cinnamon, pumpkin, and spices from pies and quick breads greeted us after a long day of math, science, social studies, reading, and holiday crafts. But my favorite days were those a day or two before Thanksgiving when the tang of tart cranberry sauce and brown sugar and cinnamon sticky buns wafted from the kitchen.

cookiescoolingAs December’s snow and chill took hold, holiday preparations continued but the scent of baking now mingled with the odors of Thanksgiving leftovers and hot, nourishing but easy meals such as vegetable soup or beef stew. They simmered all afternoon while Mom wrapped gifts to hide under her bed and at the back of her closet. Progress made daily for holiday magic to happen.

By the time school let out for Christmas break, we children were banned to the basement to play, and it was the perfect opportunity to sneak frozen cookies from the freezer in the corner. While I served as lookout, my brother peeled back the plastic cover of Mom’s massive Tupperware container and nabbed a few cookies. We shared them, breaking off pieces and savoring the chewiness the of mouth-thawed treats and tried to find the willpower not to sneak another and another. Oh, she always noticed that at least a dozen cookies were missing (by the time she pulled them out late on December 23rd), but it never prevented Santa from arriving to deliver presents to the cookie thieves.

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

Though I’ve updated the traditions of which cookies and quick breads to bake, I do make sure to have a pot of soup simmering in my slow cooker and fresh dinner rolls rising and baking as I put up the tree and untangle the lights. Sausage, carrots, and lentils mingle with the yeasty scent of rolls and the lingering aromas of cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon as well as the tinkling of glass bell ornaments. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them.

So, when you’re writing, pull out the memories and use them as a springboard for ideas and events in your current project. Even if you’re writing fantasy fiction, consider what holidays your characters celebrate, how they react to them, what their happy (or unhappy) memories about them are, what they would change if they could. And don’t forget to focus on sounds and scents as you write those scenes.

Happy Holidays, and happy writing!

Media Milestone!

How exciting! I’ve been interviewed about my writing for newspapers, magazines, and once on the radio, but my first (cable) television interview airs this weekend on C-SPAN2. You can watch the clip April 19-20 on your cable station or on the Cites Tour Fort Myers page.

Interview in Fort Myers during the C-SPAN Cities Tour in March 2014

Interview in Fort Myers during the C-SPAN Cities Tour in March 2014

It’s been a month since BookTV’s Cities Tour Local Content Vehicles (LVC) visited the city of Fort Myers, Fla. and met with me at Books-A-Million to discuss my book, The Right to Counsel: From Gideon v. Wainwright to Gideon’s Trumpet (Enslow Publishers, 2009).

Clip from interview about THE RIGHT TO COUNSEL.

Clip from interview about THE RIGHT TO COUNSEL.

This weekend, April 19-20, the segment airs on C-SPAN2 (Saturday) and C-SPAN3 (Sunday). The crew of LVC did a fantastic job weaving my interview with still images and video clips from the 1980 Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, Gideon’s Trumpet,  starring Henry Fonda as Clarence Earl Gideon. Thank you C-SPAN Cities Tour for including me in your fantastic coverage of “The City of Palms”!

Clarence Earl Gideon shooting pool.

Clarence Earl Gideon shooting pool.

Henry Fonda as Clarence Earl Gideon studying law books at Raiford Prison in the Hallmark movie, Gideon's Trumpet.

Henry Fonda as Clarence Earl Gideon studying law books at Raiford Prison in the Hallmark movie, Gideon’s Trumpet.

 

 

Happy May Day!

May Day, a symbol of  springtime, of rebirth and renewal. It’s exactly the time to celebrate launching a new chapter and exciting things on the horizon. This year it also has personal importance to me since I have finally concluded an especially hectic semester. I didn’t think I would survive, but I did; that alone is worth celebrating.

January to April is always hectic for me since it’s “season” in Florida and on top of teaching college and arts enrichment classes, I offer writing workshops through various venues.  Additionally, this semester I was honored to also be among the inaugural faculty for a first-year experience college course which involved also serving on related committees. My plate was overloaded in trying to balance the teaching, writing, and personal events of the last few months. Having gotten through it with my sanity (mostly) intact and my attitude only slightly frayed, I feel like a champion.

But, despite the “success” of having plowed through the last few months, I did spend the month of April re-evaluating my goals and laying the foundation for new pathways toward my  future. In fact, though April was National Poetry Month, I never had a chance to share any of my poems or those by beloved poets. I did, however, live “First Fig,” one of my favorite poems and the one that led me to discover a favorite poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. I was definitely burning my candle “from both it’s ends” and yes, it most definitely “gives a lovely light.”

So, it’s time to set off on the pathway I have spent so much of the past month preparing. I’m eager to see where it leads and confident that it will allow me to better balance all those things that are important to me without making me feel I’m not giving life my all.

Here’s to springtime, rebirth, and a fresh start. Happy May Day!