New! Online Voice Class available this fall

Finally!  I have a couple of months that are a little less demanding so I can offer the voice class again this fall. It’s been almost two years!  I love teaching this, and believe deeply in the power of voice, so I’ve missed it a LOT.

What it is:

A six week writing intensive designed to help each writer recognize the unique elements that form her own voice, and to recognize voice as a whole.    Each week, I’ll post a set of exercises, and you will have several days to complete them.  Then you will post your work to the group, and we will then discuss what elements of voice have been showcased that week.   There is plenty of time to discuss questions that come up, and to address each writer’s concerns about her own voice.

The exercises are mostly timed writings, and are designed to build, week by week, to help you see what elements make your voice unique, and how you might be able to best match it to the marketplace. Are you a funny ethnic writer with a thread of poignance?  A serious historical novelist with deep roots in a particular time?  What influenced you to come a writer, who taught you to talk, what have you read and loved?   All these elements form the developing writer.

It’s a very deep workshop, very hands-on, and I believe it can be very helpful for writers who are floundering for whatever reason–too many contest judges, too many rejections, a crazy critique group, an editor who undermined you. Maybe you aren’t at all sure where you belong in the writing universe and need to figure out where you fit.  Over the years, a number of students have found their voices in all kinds of surprising and interesting ways, and have formed friendships with other writers as well.


The class is SMALL, and very intimate, and I will be reading and commenting on your work personally, which is why this is more expensive than the average online workshop.  I do offer two scholarships every time, so if you are aching to do this and just can’t swing it, please drop me an email at with SCHOLARSHIP REQUEST in the subject line and I’ll put your name in a hat.

Start date: August 31, 2010

Price: $225

If you are interested, send an email with Voice Workshop in the subject line to

And any of you out there who found it helpful, either online or in person, please let me know that, too.

Showing up

Pretty sure I’ve posted a blog that says more or less this same thing at least 63 times, but it’s worth saying again. I get more work done, more good pages, more excellent rewriting done when I actually put myself in the chair during my most productive hours (8 am to 12 pm) and…uh…work.

It sounds so simple, but it isn’t, actually. I have to bypass the Internet, even a little glimpse into it. Not just for the reason that it distracts me, and I can find something to do, but because it changes the direction of my thoughts, pulls me into the world instead of pulling me into myself. I used to walk the dog right after breakfast, but I make him wait now until I take my morning break. I do not answer the phone. I don’t do anything but go to the office with my coffee in hand and sit down at my desk. I’m allowed to write a journal or lists of things I’d like to accomplish or even lists of scenes. I don’t even let myself do a meditation right there in the corner, which is all set up for it. Even that can be a way for me to avoid going into the world of my novel.

I can journal, etc, for 20 minutes, then I have to open the file and get moving. Usually what happens is that I can’t go into it cold–it feels too challenging, too scary for my still emergent creativity–so I find a spot I know I want to tweak, or one I know I’m going to like, and I read there. I change a word or two, rewrite a sentence here, a sentence there. I read aloud to get the cadence right, maybe, or play with subtext or echoes. This always works to pull me back into the world of the book at hand, and out of my own head and life and agitations.

And surprise! By 11 or sometimes even by 9:30, I’ve done my pages for the day and I am free to do other things. Like today, when I am headed out to Barnes and Noble for a coffee and a nice amble. Maybe I’ll look at journals for my upcoming travels.

How do you trick yourself to do things?

The Lost Art of Family Dinners

Dinner in Suburbia by Make Less Noise
When I was a child, we ate dinner together nearly every night. I did not necessarily love the whole ritual, especially when my mother made hamburger pie, covered with mashed potatoes, or when I was in trouble for one thing or another (which was a lot), but I can see from this angle that it was a good thing.

Our kitchen was large and we ate there, gathered around the white melamine table with its painted edging of lacy gold leaves. We had assigned seats, mainly because my sister Merry is left-handed, but also because there was sometimes a scuffle over who landed the seat next to my dad. My parents pinned the ends, and I sat between my mother and my sister Cathy (who still jockeys to sit next to my father at all functions). My father would ask, “What was the highlight of YOUR day?” and we’d have to answer.

Supper was rarely anything fancy. Tacos and spaghetti and sometimes a Sunday roast beef, most every meal made from ground beef, which was affordable and stretched over six people. We did eat Hamburger Helper, which honestly didn’t seem that terrible to me, and jello with fruit, green beans from a can (I absolutely despised frozen vegetables) and applesauce from a jar, and sliced wheat bread with margarine to fill up whatever didn’t get full from the main meal. (Four growing teenagers can eat a lot!) When my father worked for awhile at a 7-Up bottling plant, he sometimes brought home six packs of Nehi, but we mostly drank Kool-Aid. (Hey, it was the ’70’s. Nobody had discovered cuisine, at least not in the suburbs.)

We talked, made conversation. Sometimes my father would ask us all to tell the highlight of our day, and we’d moan about it, but it was fun. We talked about everything, and if anyone had a problem, they stayed at the table after dinner to sort it out.

So naturally, when my own children came along, I also created a tradition of dinner at the table. American standbys had shifted a bit by then. Chicken and soups and Mexican food were my standbys, things that wouldn’t burn if I became distracted by my work. We drank milk and iced tea. Again, simple food on a simple rotation, the same 30 meals in endless rotation. In our house, we sat in the dining room with blue walls (light blue for a long time, then a bright, bold deep blue I loved madly), around a heavy wooden table someone gave us early in our marriage. The dogs were banished to the line on the other side of the door, and waited politely to finish. We talked about school, and I asked them sometimes to share the highlight of their day. Somebody would tell a joke. Someone would lodge a complaint.

But it was good.

There has been much made about some (flawed) studies of children and family dinners, and I’m not going to bother with statistics here. I’m an observer, not a social scientist; a curious writer, not a statistician. We don’t need statistics. Our gut knows that this is an important ritual. Time Magazine said it best in this article from 2006:

“There is something about a shared meal–not some holiday blowout, not once in a while but regularly, reliably–that anchors a family even on nights when the food is fast and the talk cheap and everyone has someplace else they’d rather be. And on those evenings when the mood is right and the family lingers, caught up in an idea or an argument explored in a shared safe place where no one is stupid or shy or ashamed, you get a glimpse of the power of this habit and why social scientists say such communion acts as a kind of vaccine, protecting kids from all manner of harm. Read more:,9171,1200760,00.html#ixzz0gEQfFb8l”

Yet, over and over we read that the family dinner is in decline. There are likely hundreds of reasons. Parents who work long hours to keep the mortgage paid, the decline in cooking skills, fast food, irregular schedules. I suspect, however, that we’ve simply fallen out of practice a bit.

In THE LOST RECIPE FOR HAPPINESS and THE SECRET OF EVERYTHING, family dinners end up playing a small but crucial part of the narrative. And I’m forced to admit that I believe in it, family dinner, believe that it has the power to cure all kinds of ills and problems. Not everything. Heaven knows family dinners didn’t keep me out of trouble as a rebellious (and obnoxious) teen. They did, however, give me a place to retreat, fall apart, even make reparation by showing up and behaving myself. “Pass the potatoes, please,” and “Does anyone want this last tortilla?” can go a long way to healing rifts.

Family dinners don’t have to look like they do on television. Maybe both mom and dad can’t be at the table. Maybe the family is mom and one child, or dad and his visiting children, or stepfamilies assembled in all their glorious and inglorious incarnations. Maybe it’s even grandpa bring home some chicken and biscuits from the local Kentucky Fried.

The important part is the regular-ish timing of it. It’s the setting of the table and the sitting down to a meal on plates, whether it came out of a bucket or an oven or is peanut butter sandwiches and a glass of milk. It’s the dumb requirements of conversation (What was the highlight of your day? What was one thing that happened today?) and the attempts to be present for each other, even if—as in the Time paragraph—everybody would rather be holed up in their rooms in front of the television.

So, those would be my rules for magical family dinners.

Same time every night
(If evenings don’t work, make family time at breakfast.)
Seven days a week.
Every family member is required to sit at the table unless they have to work (and parents should not use this as an excuse very often. Aim for a time that’s realistic.)
Everybody has to participate even if they think it’s silly.

Bonus points:
Prepare meals from scratch together
Offer a blessing from your tradition over the food before you begin
Aim for one really great meal every week, maybe Saturday evening, and follow with family games or movies.

Triple points for teenagers showing up. I shamelessly used bribery with mine, but you may be more squeamish.

Eat. Talk. Prosper.
Do you find it difficult to arrange family dinners? What gets in your way? What tricks have you found to help? Did your family eat together?

Go outside and play

It is a vividly bright day this morning, sun shining on freshly fallen
snow, the Peak crisply cocked against a balloon sky.  The house is
quiet.  The tree has been dismantled, the beds stripped, the fridge and
cupboards cleared of all dangerous treats (well, except that one bottle
of rum.  Oh, and the verpoorten advocaate which my friend Renate brought for a little New Year’s Day party we had here.  And three candy canes.) 

Yesterday, I finally trundled my way back to the gym, with a new goal
to learn how to swim more efficiently.  It’s good for the shoulders and
neck, which get so tight during all those hours at the computer.  I’ll
get back to yoga classes tomorrow, too.  I’ve been hiking and walking
the dogs, but that’s a challenge with the icy paths and streets
(especially since Jack is still in recovery from knee surgery), and
it’s not been enough.  I like to be active.  Not for health benefits,
though that’s a nice side effect.  Not for weight loss, though it does
mean I can eat more.  Not for any reason except that it feels good.
I was never an athletic child–I was particularly horrible at team
sports involving balls–but I loved walking forever with my
grandmother.  I loved riding my bike all over the neighborhood and
climbing ropes and spending as much of the day as possible at the local
swimming pool and skating at Roller Rena with my dad, who as a
beautiful skater and swimmer.  It felt good, especially as the rest of
the time, I was curled up in a chair, utterly still, reading.  And
reading. And reading. 

The statistics are out again, about modest exercise and what it can do
for you.  Simple things. Walk a half hour.  Swim a little while.  A
woman I know is losing weight like crazy by rollerblading, and I
seriously want to get some outdoor skates (not rollerblades for me,
thanks, but check these out) for spring.  I’ve been swimming again because I did love it so much as a child. 

And for the record, I am not particularly good at any of these things
(well, skating. I am good at that.)  I splash around the swimming pool
like five little kids.  I jog so slowly that turtles zip right by me.
My hiking buddy, who is a decade older than I, routinely has to slow
down while we are hiking.   

But writers have a very, very, very sedentary job and we have to
consciously add movement.  It makes the work better.  It keeps
repetitive motion injuries to a minimum, and it allows time for ideas
to percolate. 

Everything out there is telling you to lose weight for the new year.  I
don’t care how much you weigh.   I do care about how healthy you are.
If you are not moving, what is stopping you?  Do you feel embarrassed
to do something badly?   Take a lesson or two.  Is it too cold/hot
where you are? Find something you can do indoors.  What kind of
exercise feels like play to you? Did you, like me, swim and roller
skate?  Did you love to play softball at the corner lot?  Did you ride
your bike forever and ever and ever?

What are some ideas for exercise that is PLAY?  What do you love to do?
(And if you like something hard, that’s great.  I want to test myself hiking some more 14ers this summer.)