Category Archives: truth and beauty

Writing Life: Present Beauty

A fellow poet once said to me that he admired another poet friend of ours, because he genuinely lived his life, and looked at life, through the eyes of a poet. Which means, he stayed in the present. Writing (and other art forms) focuses us in on the present moment.

As human beings out in the world, though, we are often inside of our heads, fretting about the past or future, rather than where we are right in the moment. I’ve been in the practice lately of trying to catch myself when I am not present, when my thoughts have carried me elsewhere. I stop and look around the room or bus or sidewalk at the other people to see where they are. I note what’s around me. The colours and shadows, the expressions and tones, the way someone moves, or how they’ve dressed. I notice what the birds are doing. And what kids are up to.

Sometimes we don’t have 2 hours, or even 1 hour, to write in a day. But we can still create in these fleeting moments. We can still make stories up, collect images, notice shapes and sounds and conversations. We can use all the time we are not writing as “research.”

Every time I walk through the cemetery, I notice the tree that looks like a wolf. Some day, that tree is going to end up in a story or poem of mine.

So, while standing in line at Starbucks, stop drafting that email in your head and look around you. There’s a little girl licking the whipped cream out of a mug while her mother yells into her cell phone. Someone is painting christmas stockings on the window and it’s not even Thanskgiving. The elderly lady in line speaks with an Eastern European accent and has a rebellious streak of pink in her hair.

All of these are useful beautiful moments. All of these make life’s background fuller and richer. They are life images you can glean from as an observer and recorder of life.

My WEEKEND WORKOUT this Friday will be about using these present images in a written piece. So, notice as much as possible this week. Not only will it keep you out of your head and in the present moment, it will be a creative database for later use.


Filed under truth and beauty, writing life

Celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the 3:15 Experiment

I’m a bit at the eleventh hour here with this invitation (SINCE IT BEGINS TONIGHT), but truly, you could join the experiment at any time. And I wanted to write this invitation especially to those who don’t necessarily fancy themselves to be poets.


Since August 1993, a shifting menagerie of writers has been waking up each night at 3:15 AM for the entire month of August to write. The original idea was:

to discover what connections would be made while writing separately, but together, at the same time for a month while under hypnagogic influences.

The experiment was so intriguing and inspiring it kept growing and morphing. Many writers have come to look forward to it every year. Many have created their own guidelines and experiments within the format. We love this as long as people maintain the point: to write in the hypnopompic/hypnagogic states (between sleeping and waking / waking and sleeping).

Anything posted to any “official” 3:15 publication or website maintains the RAW unedited material. Though many writers choose to publish their edited poems elsewhere. We like that, too.

To Join:

A facebook page to stay in communication during the month:

3:15 Facebook Page

Some samples from years past:

The 3:15 Experiment Website
Though not everyone chooses to post their poems (or even types them out).

And here is a thesis paper written by Gwendolyn Alley on the topic:

The 20th Anniversary of the 3:15 Experiment

My invitation to you comes in the form of a poem.

you don’t have to be a poet

to write poetry
my father built greenhouses
and filled them with orchids

I believe people are meant
to get along with each other

the Indian taxi driver waves
me into my turn
gives me the right
of way      as I cruise
the summer streets on my
hand-me-down bicycle

I stop at the Holy Cross Anglican Church
to write down that line
about my dad’s orchids
before it spills into the road
with my juggled thoughts
of the two cherub-faced Mormon boys
who came to my front door
struggling to respond
when I told them:

Think of the metaphor of the ocean
how we can be drops
yet still disappear
into the One
universal consciousness

before thanking them for their good work
and sending them on their way
tripping tongue-tied through the gate

no, you don’t have to be a poet
to write poetry
you just need to write
an open door


Filed under Collaborations, do something different, poetry, The 3:15 Experiment, truth and beauty, writing exercises, writing life

I Disappeareded

Every once in a while, we must “disappear” for a time. Or at least we should . . . anyone who tries to maintain all the little working parts of their lives when the big unexpecteds show up is going to drive themselves to an early stress grave.

Sometimes we face crises (my heart goes out to the families of all those firefighters who died in Arizona), sometimes we change jobs, sometimes we go on extended trips, sometimes we face physical ailments, sometimes we fall in love.

Sometimes all five at the same time.

by Vincent Manalo

by Michael Vincent Manalo

Whenever this happens, if you’re like me and have to manage your own work schedule, and tend to take on a lot of different projects, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. To stay healthy and sane, it’s best to assess all commitments (to yourself and others) and uncommit to what you can.

Without feeling guilty.

Many times it’s the commitments to ourselves we put aside (exercise, creativity, socializing). And we feel just as guilty for breaking commitments to ourselves as we do to breaking them with others. As a matter of fact, I bet those ones break our hearts just a little more, because we are putting aside our dreams.

I feel anxious when I’m not writing or editing. My stress level goes up. So, recently, when life threw me a series of curve balls, and I wasn’t writing or editing or even blogging, and I was overwhelmed with so many things on my plate, I made the decision to drop a few commitments I had made to others.

I chose the ones that I hadn’t started yet, so didn’t have much emotional investment in them. I was brief and honest when I told them they would need to find someone else. It was better than me sending excuse after excuse as to why I hadn’t finished yet and stringing them along. Really, it’s a win-win decision.

I felt lighter after I had told them. Immediately, that night, I started working on my book again for the first time in weeks. And here I am, able to blog again. The short bandaid rip of pain in communicating my inability to follow through on these things was worth it.

So, how do you face your own periods of overwhelm when you have them?


Filed under truth and beauty, writing life

Hellooooooo! Weekend Workout: We Got Talent

Wow. It’s been over a month since I’ve blogged. I’ve been trying to get back to it, but life kept happening. I won’t go into all the details, but let’s just say the circumnavigation included a computer death, a back injury (unrelated to the computer death), 3 elementary school visits (also unrelated to the back injury), a flashmob, a haircut, completing my latest rewrite on a new novel (yay), a dream about a roller coaster for executives. And this:

steaming jar of

The back injury happened while falling into a pile of logs trying to retrieve this one for my garden:

garden log

Okay, the part where I carried this by myself to the car may have exacerbated my back injury a bit. But lookie how cool my garden driftwood log is! And my free beach log only cost me $300 in massage and chiropractor expenses!

So, while I was grumbly and lying around recovering, I entertained myself by watching 2 seasons of The Killing – a really fantastic series (oh, but don’t tell my husband I watched season 2 without him) and inspirational youtube videos of X Factor auditions.

I’ve never watched X Factor, American Idol, The Voice, or any of these other singing shows, and I don’t think I’d watch a whole show or a whole season. But what I loved over and over again was when the person auditioning  took the judges by surprise. I loved when what they expected was turned on its head.

A few of my favourites included:

Jeffery Adam Gutt
Panda Ross
Tate Stevens
Luke Lucas
and from Britain’s Got Talent, Charlotte and Jonathan

The list goes on, really (I probably watched 100 videos). And it’s made me think both about expectation and inspiration. We can’t help but to judge people the moment we see them. It’s human nature. And I find it completely inspiring when my own expectations are blown out the door.


Literary agent Donald Maas, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, says that to make your characters universal, you have to make them unique, which sounds like an oxymoron. But, he explains, that our uniqueness is the universal thing about us.

What’s unique about us might be a talent – a small one or a large one or a quirky one. Remember in BREAKFAST CLUB when Claire (Molly Ringwald) placed her lipstick between her breasts and put it on without her hands, claiming it was her only talent? John Green’s protagonist in AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES  has a talent for making anagrams.

What is your character’s talent? Is it integral to the plot or a bonus character trait? Does your antagonist or villain have a talent as well?

1) Pick one of your characters to use for this exercise.

SET YOUR TIMER for 7-10 minutes.

Start with the line:
If my character had nothing to do all day, he’d occupy himself by…

Write without stopping, crossing out, rereading, or editing.

2) SET YOUR TIMER for 10-12 minutes.

Start with the line: My character is most proud of the way he…

3) SET YOUR TIMER for 15-20 minutes.

Now write a SCENE in which another character comes upon your character doing this thing at which he or she is so talented.

Make the scene awkward for the character by either a) making the character ashamed of being caught, or b) making the person who catches him in the middle of this thing either critical or snide about it.

Start with the line: Character X walks into the room and laughs …

Write without stopping, crossing out, rereading, or editing.

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Filed under inspirational poop, truth and beauty, weekend workout, writing exercises, writing life

Weekend Workout: Love Uber Alles

Yesterday, while I was procrastinating working on my own blog post, I came across this lovely post by children’s author Kelly Barnhill. It’s basically about how everyone, at some point in their lives, but particularly when we are mean-spirited children, participates in “bad behaviour.” It was also about the child taking responsibility for that behaviour and the parent loving the child in spite the behaviour. What I took away from it was the joy of loving the mess that we are, the whole package. We are tragically flawed beings, and I have always found a certain beauty in that.

We are all mended cracks and creaky gears. We are broken smiles, broken hearts, broken minds and broken lives. We are hack-jobs and cast-offs and wobbly legs and gouged surfaces. We are soft edges, scuffed corners, ungleaming and unvarnished, but pleasant to hold and comforting to touch. (from Barnhill‘s post)

My own mother said that her philosophy as a parent was that the child was never bad, the behaviour was. We are perfect beings who make mistakes – – if you can wrap your head around that oxymoron.


by Rashin Kheirieh

All of this thought-tracked into something I once heard Alexandra Cunningham (one of the lead writers on Desperate Housewives) say on a panel: Write every character with compassion, no matter how different from yourself.

Let’s expand that to say, “Write every character with compassion, no matter how bad their behaviour.”

You can take this to mean write your villains with compassion, but it may be your protagonist who needs more love from you. This is the case for me right now with my aforementioned W.I.P.

IdoLL engages in a lot of bad behaviour. She needs to; that’s the whole point. She is mean-spirited and selfish. Feedback from my focus group has been that it is difficult to empathize with her because of this bad behaviour. However, the majority of this group also told me that they really like her transformation. She redeems herself at the end and they were happy about this. “It’s satisfying” one young reader said.

So, if the reader makes it more than ½ way through the book, they will start to see her transformation, but if the reader puts the book down for lack of connection, they’ll never get there.

My job now is to create more compassion for her at the beginning of the story, so that even though she engages in this bad behaviour, we love her anyway.

I thought perhaps I should do this by writing her with more compassion. The thing is, I DO have a lot of compassion for IdoLL, but I was relying on her sense of humour to carry her through. Cleverness and a sense of humour in your protagonists can often persuade readers into liking them. But this time, it wasn’t enough.

Your Workout

Set your timer for 5-7 minutes.

Start at the top of the page with the following startline:

1) The wound that festers in my character’s heart is made up of …

Write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.

When the timer stops, Set your timer for 7-10 more minutes.

Start with the following line: 

2) My character feels utterly betrayed when . . .

Write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.

When the timer stops, Set your timer for 10-12 more minutes.

Start with the following line: 

3) The pain of this betrayal looks like

Write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.

Read your exercises, make notes, highlight what makes sense.

Happy Weekend!


Filed under truth and beauty, weekend workout, writing exercises

Weekend Workout: For the Sheer Pleasure of It

Sometimes when I’m working on the White Forest series I find myself worried, overwhelmed, and slightly stressed about it all. I feel a pressure to deliver each story as good, or preferably even better, than the last. Sometimes the romance of writing gets lost in the day-to-day nitty-gritty of having to produce.

Sometimes I have to remind myself of my more “innocent” days of writing. When there was no pressure but to write for the sheer pleasure of it.

Hence, lately, I’ve been blogging about those “secret projects,” the ones no one knows I’m working on, where I can experiment and play, try a new form, a new direction, a new genre for the sheer pleasure of it.


by Alison Woodward

This morning I started thinking about the “sheer pleasures” of my series protagonist, Brigitta. As the series continues, as she faces greater and greater dangers, she has much less time for daydreaming in the lyllium fields, languishing in the mist of Precipice Falls, or interpreting shadowfly dances. She has her own pressures and responsibilities (that’s also mistakenly called “growing up,” because really, we should not forget our sheer pleasures).

What do your characters do for the sheer pleasure of it? Not just your heroes and their allies, but the villains, antagonists, and monsters, too. Even Hitler loved art and was wild about the opera. That doesn’t detract from the monstrous things that he did. As a matter of fact, there was a curated art show a few years ago depicting Hitler as “a perverted artist” and theorizing about how his artistic aesthetic was echoed in his politics and Nazi pageantry.

I find it particularly sinister when an “evil” character has time to sit back and enjoy a piece of music and at the same time have no compassion for his victims. How could someone like Hannibal Lecter, for instance, recognize the beauty of a song and at the same time violently destroy a life? In the average person’s mind, the two cannot be squared.

How can you use a character’s “sheer pleasures” to demonstrate losing innocence (as Brigitta’s story does) or complement / contrast a character’s twisted nature?

Your Workout:

Set your timer for 5-7 minutes.
Start at the top of the page with the following startline:

1) My Protagonist/Antagonist/Villain has an uncanny talent for…

Write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.

When the timer stops, Set your timer for 7-10 more minutes.
Start with the following line: 

2) My Protagonist/Antagonist/Villain sees great beauty in . . .

Write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.

When the timer stops, Set your timer for 10-12 more minutes.
Start with the following line: 

3) My character’s appreciation for beauty becomes obsession/repression/twisted when …

Write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.

Read your exercises, make notes, highlight what makes sense.

Happy Weekend!




Filed under truth and beauty, weekend workout, writing exercises

Middle Grade Monday: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

I adore this book for many reasons. I don’t believe i’ve ever cried so much reading a middle grade novel. Yes, I’m a big softie, but I dare you to get through this thing without at least two tissues.

from Goodreads:

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?

When I first heard about this book, I was wondering how the author was going to pull it off without making the story too “After School Special.” She manages beautifully.

Told in multiple perspectives that bring a depth and authenticity to the work, it’s still completely accessible and family-friendly, with no violence or vulgarity. If I were an elementary school teacher, I’d use this book in the classroom to discuss everything from feeling different to bullying.

You have to understand, that it’s not the extreme facial deformity that kept Augie out of school. In his 10 years, he’s had 24 reconstructive surgeries, and for the first time there’s a long break from them, allowing him to attend a public school. He is small for his age as well and was not expected to live.

We start from Augie’s POV as he’s about to enter 5th grade. We then get pieces of the story told by his sister, two of his school friends (one who breaks his heart), his sister’s boyfriend, and his sister’s best friend. I love the chapters by Augie’s sister Olivia (“Via”) because she had to understand at an early age, that Augie’s needs come first. She says she’s not being noble, but that once you’ve seen your baby brother with his jaw wired shut and IV tubes poking out all over his body, it seems kinda dumb to get upset about not getting that new toy.

As August is entering public school for the first time, Via is entering high school and dealing with her best friends’ shunning. She has always been protective of August, but now she feels guilty because she doesn’t want her new high school peers to know about him. She wants an independence separate from him and doesn’t want to be known as “the girl with the deformed brother.”

The premise is simple, and the characters drawn fairly complex for a middle grade novel. The bully and his mom may be a bit one-dimensional, but that’s also because we never get their POV. As a class exercise, I think I’d have my students write a chapter based on the bully’s POV.

This is such a feel-good story at the end that you’ll be crying all over again, but it’s not schlocky or too bubblegum. It’s both heart-wrenching and heart-warming.

for more Middle Grade Monday hi-jinx, visit Shannon Messenger’s blog


Filed under Middle Grade Mondays, on my bookshelf, truth and beauty