the kinetic pen

wired by words


My Day with Mary Oliver

I’m two states away from home for a weekend with my mom, writing in the hours before she wakes and extremely grateful for a life that gives me the flexibility, support and love to do what makes my heart happiest.

In honor of that, and with hope you have the chance to pursue your own passion, I share this Mary Oliver poem:


What did you notice?

The dew snail;
the low-flying sparrow;
the bat, on the wind, in the dark;
big-chested geese, in the V of sleekest performance;
the soft toad, patient in the hot sand;
the sweet-hungry ants;
the uproar of mice in the empty house;
the tin music of the cricket’s body;
the blouse of the goldenrod.

What did you hear?

The thrush greeting the morning;
the little bluebirds in their hot box;
the salty talk of the wren,
then the deep cup of the hour of silence.

What did you admire?

The oaks, letting down their dark and hairy fruit;
the carrot, rising in its elongated waist;
the onion, sheet after sheet, curved inward to the
pale green wand;
at the end of summer the brassy dust, the almost liquid
beauty of the flowers;
then the ferns, scrawned black by the frost.

What astonished you?

The swallows making their dip and turn over the water.

What would you like to see again?

My dog: her energy and exuberance, her willingness,
her language beyond all nimbleness of tongue, her
recklessness, her loyalty, her sweetness, her
sturdy legs, her curled black lip, her snap.

What was most tender?

Queen Anne’s lace, with its parsnip root;
the everlasting in its bonnets of wool;
the kinks and turns of the tupelo’s body;
the tall, blank banks of sand;
the clam, clamped down.

What was most wonderful?

The sea, and its wide shoulders;
the sea and its triangles;
the sea lying back on its long athlete’s spine.

What did you think was happening?

The green breast of the hummingbird;
the eye of the pond;
the wet face of the lily;
the bright, puckered knee of the broken oak;
the red tulip of the fox’s mouth;
the up-swing, the down-pour, the frayed sleeve
of the first snow—

so the gods shake us from our sleep.


6 Questions for Writers

I’ve decided to sit in the hotseat. Kristen M. Ploetz, with the adorable blog “Little Lodestar,” is asking writers to answer a few questions about their craft. My turn:

1. Do you share your work with your partner or spouse? Does it matter if it’s been published yet? I typically never share my creative writing with my husband before publication (there are exceptions), but I never hesitate to run things by him when I’m working on a freelance assignment and need guidance. Hmm…

2. How much of your family and/or closest “friends in real life first” read your stuff…let alone give you feedback about it? My friend Sue not only reads my essays or parts of my manuscript, but has been vital in shaping sentences, paragraphs and scenes that evolve from ‘almost there’ to ‘right on!’ – and I hope all writers find someone in their life like that.

3. Are there pieces you write for one very specific place that, once rejected, you just let go of, or do you rework into something else? I’m not sure I believe we need to let pieces go completely. If something of mine gets rejected, I pick it apart and use the material in other ways. The messages we want to get out need to get out. Sometimes doing that successfully just takes some patience and a different spin.

4. What is your main source of reading-based inspiration (especially you essayists)? Blogs? Magazines? Journals? Anthologies? Book of essays by one writer? ANYTHING by Julia Cameron. Every issue of The Sun magazine. Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth.

5. What tends to spark ideas more for you: what you see/hear in daily life or what you read? Definitely the former. Sometimes my head hurts because I have too many ideas flowing in at once.

6. Without listing anything written by Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, Lee Gutkind, or Natalie Goldberg, what craft books are “must haves”? I mentioned Julia Cameron, so I’ll list two of her titles that speak to writers not only on craft but identity: The Sound of Paper: Starting from Scratch and The Writer’s Life: Insights from the Right to Write.

To all my writer friends: How would you answer these questions (or some of them)? Go!



Writing Your Nonfiction Book

I’m honored to review Trish Nicholson’s Writing Your Nonfiction Book: The Complete Guide to Becoming an Author. The New Zealander’s writing career spans 30 years as columnist, feature writer for national media, and author of narrative nonfiction on a range of subjects. She also writes short fiction, winning several international competitions, and recently completed a successful workshop tour coaching writers in the UK and Netherlands.

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Lots of authors slap a subtitle on their book assuring potential readers they’re about to read “the complete guide” to some subject or another. Trish Nicholson used those three heady words and with good reason.

Writing Your Nonfiction Book: The Complete Guide to Becoming an Author does in three highly detailed parts what you would want a how-to manual to do, and that’s pair essential advice with practical instructions (and a bit of wit along the way).

I respect honesty and directness, and so appreciated Nicholson starting early by coaxing authors to clarify a purpose for their project before diving in. “The way you approach this stage depends on your reasons for writing a book,” she writes. Is it for financial success? For the sheer love of your subject? “The choice is yours,” she continues, “but you do need to make one, so that you can lay the right foundations.”

Her well-thought-out blueprint is for the serious-minded: She tells you how to write every day, manage your time wisely, and adapt to the whims of the ever-changing publishing world. Yet beginners won’t feel overwhelmed. Along the way there are instructions for using computer programs most efficiently, tips for asking the right questions during interviews, and suggestions for storytelling techniques.

When talking about ideas for structuring different genres, Nicholson not only offers ideas for those genres (travel, histories, memoir, self-help, educational) but examples in each, showing how various framing devices – such as dividing material into chapters that follow the four seasons – have been used successfully in works already published.

No matter how much experience you have as a writer, Writing Your Nonfiction Book offers necessary encouragement for making it through rough patches with your project still in play. My favorite: “…no such dramatic and life-threatening condition as ‘writer’s block’ exists. Instead, tiredness, despondency and distractions can temporarily interfere with our inner desire to write.”

I find that sort of assessment realistic rather than strict, and laughed out loud on more than one occasion while reading. Like when she suggested setting up a “swear box” on your desk into which you pay a fine every time you write “really,” “very,” or other weak and useless word. The point? You just might accumulate enough money to pay for an editor once the first draft is done.

A glossary of common writing, printing and publishing terms at the end of the book is tremendously helpful for writers who want to know the difference, for instance, between creative nonfiction and narrative nonfiction. That’s preceded by Nicholson’s recommendations for useful websites and books.

My takeaway from this book is that we are all trainable humans who, with the right path set before us, can believe more fully in both our project and ourselves. As Nicholson puts it: “Celebrate every small success, learn from each setback, and stay your course.”

Committed writers can’t ask for better advice than that.

On a personal note: The book ends with a quote commonly attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which ends, “Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” That quote is on my refrigerator, in the form of a magnet I gave to my husband before we climbed Mount Kilimanjaro together in 2008. I can attest to the validity of that statement, and know in my heart that believing in it as writers can help us reach unimagined heights.

To order a copy of the book reviewed here, visit:


Why I Write

I’m honored to have been invited by author Julie Scipioni to take part in this blog hop, in which I write about why I write.

I wake at 5:15 a.m. to record the words in my head, when it’s dark and quiet and they get strung more easily than when the sun appears and the traffic starts. This is when I focus heaviest on the creative writing I do outside my work as a freelance journalist. (Although my dream is to make part of my living as an essayist.)

When I worked full time at a newspaper, the last thing I wanted to do when off the clock was write. Now self-employed, there is no clock, really. I conduct interviews throughout the day, some evenings and weekends, and with a much more fluid schedule that I control (hello, short break to watch “Orange is the New Black”) I find myself writing at all hours, even if what I produce is just a paragraph.

Writing excites me, and has since penning “Santa Claus and the Magic Pencils” (changed not much later to “Santa Claus and the Magic Gifts”) in the first grade. It was my first – and if memory serves correctly, my last – complete work of fiction, given that nonfiction comes more naturally. Maybe that’s why I became a reporter…

In any case, among other reasons:

I write to express what otherwise tumbles out of my mouth in too many words that obscure what I’m really trying to say – or too few words that don’t fully articulate the weight of my thoughts.

I write to unearth what has been buried.

I write so that my head doesn’t feel too full and my body doesn’t feel too anxious.

I write to keep myself open and honest.

I write, as the cliche goes, because I have to. I feel a biological pull to the keyboard or notebook (or napkin or utility bill, depending on where I am) to jot down a scene or theme I’m often convinced deserves more attention.

From Maya Angelou: “We write for the same reason that we walk, talk, climb mountains or swim the oceans – because we can…because we have the impulse to explain who we are.”

Why do you write?


Now for some introductions. Here are the next three women on this blog hop:

Sarah Brentyn is a geek, a mum, and a Lifestyle writer who loves good books and good wine. Also, chocolate. She’s passionate about nonprofits and has written newsletters and web content for numerous organizations. She has also taught her own writing workshops at girls’ group homes. She is a contributing writer for her local paper where she shares columns about life, kids, and whatever floats her boat. She enjoys writing fiction like those people who enjoy singing in the shower. She blogs at

From riding horses to writing stories, Charli Mills is a buckaroo writer. Following a career in freelancing, marketing and communications, she’s followed the sunset west to write fiction. She wrangles a weekly flash fiction challenge at and blogs the storyboard of life at Her first novel is under deadline.

Miranda Wilcox is founder and president of Thrive Potential. Combining her passions for personal development and female empowerment, she works as an individual coach and group facilitator for women and teens. Dedicated to growing clarity, confidence, and success in emerging and established women leaders, she shares thoughts and resources for thriving on her blog at

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Quotes to Write and Live By

I don’t have a cool name for this yet (maybe you can help with that!), but I’m starting a monthly post of quotations from books around my house I find inspiring, whether for advice on writing or living.

To make it fun (this part might be just for me), I’m going to select the books and page numbers at random, then jot down a few of my favorites to share, hoping they have meaning for you.

Here we go…

“You are the keeper of your own struggle…And you are the keeper of your own impatience. Frustration. And grace too. Of the generosity of your own heart. You are the keeper of your gratitude and courage. Your bravery and intention. Exhale.” –Bella Grace, Vol. 1, Issue 1

“Close your eyes, sit back quietly, and visualize that you have solved your problem. Then work backward from the solution.” –David Kundtz, ‘Awakened Mind: One-Minute Wake Up Calls to a Bold and Mindful Life’

“Write about what you would write about if only you didn’t feel blocked…Write about what you will – at some future point – actually write about. (You can start with a list and expand it with descriptions at a later date.)…Write the smallest possible segment of a larger piece.” –Elaine Farris Hughes, ‘Writing from the Inner Self: Writing and Meditation Exercises That Free Your Creativity, Inspire Your Imagination and Help You Overcome Writer’s Block’

“Why should I be anxious? It is not up to me to think of myself. It is up to me to think of God. And it is up to God to think of me. (Simone Weil)” –Mark Yaconelli, ‘Wonder, Fear, And Longing: A Book of Prayers’

“Commit to social justice in a way that is sustainable for the long haul and also encompasses all facets of your life, from how you raise your kids to the way in which you show up for work.” –Sustainable You magazine, 2013

That’s what I’ve got for today. Would you please share a quote that resonates with you from your own collection?


Flash Fiction Challenge: Fruit

My recent foray into flash fiction wasn’t as short-lived as I imagined it to be, as I’m now seemingly addicted to writer Charli Mills’ weekly Flash Fiction Challenge.

The latest prompt:
In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes fruit. It can be mythological, metaphorical or realistic. Think of fruit as a way to create tension, add a twist or something unexpected to your story. Use it to define a character or make it her obsession. Is it abundant, absent or desired?

My entry:
Dabs of red nail polish line the tips of the old woman’s white sandals.

“Grandma, did you paint your toes with your shoes on?” Anna asks.

The grandmother turns her head, looking sheepish. “I guess I should take them off next time,” she answers. Her feet dangle off the edge of the examination table, her ankles creased and swollen below the hem of her dress, her toes curled into each other. She’s quiet as she waits for the doctor.

Anna can’t think of anything to talk about. She can’t stop staring at those feet, those heels like wrinkled peaches.


Words Have an Afterlife

I got up the nerve while drying my hands.

We were in the public restroom at the beach, this woman at the sink with the tattoo on her foot and me. She had two lines of cursive writing on the top of her right foot, and I wanted to know what it said. She was washing her hands when the automatic dryer stopped blowing.

“Excuse me, do you mind telling me what your foot says?”

The woman turned off the faucet and looked down. She smiled. “It’s from my dad,” she said. “I lost him five years ago.” She told me the ink was in his handwriting, that she’d lifted the words from a letter he’d once written her:

“I miss you a great deal. Love ya, Dad.”

I never got a tattoo. In college I toyed with the idea of getting ivy draped around an ankle, and I’m extraordinarily relieved I never got around to it because I later hated the idea. That’s why I haven’t come up with any other potential options; I figure the inspiration won’t last a lifetime.

But I have respect for people who want meaningful tattoos, and this one gave me goosebumps in a flash, on every limb. What a beautiful way for her to remember her dad, to read that he misses her and loves her – in his own script.

Have you come across words that took on more power or a new meaning after a loved one’s passing?


A Flash Fiction First

I have a swelling folder of information on places to submit my writing, and this morning I gave myself a challenge – to not only start helping that folder slim down, but to dedicate today’s creative writing time to a style outside my usual wheelhouse.

Flash fiction.

I’d found this prompt in a Twitter post from @Charli_Mills: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story influenced by a musical score. Where do you drift, hearing the notes? How does it fire you up to grab the story and hurl it into existence? Or is it gentle, and leading you into lyrical pastures of green?

After getting comfy in my favorite chair, I wrote this entry:

Flight by Robin L. Flanigan

Terra presses the wet cloth to her skin, the color of spoiled milk, and closes her eyes, thinking about what it would be like to leave, to sweep herself off the porch and up the hill toward the clouds. Her mother did it. Her grandmother didn’t and look where that got her. She carefully doubles the washcloth and drapes it over the edge of the tub. She couldn’t care less if he will miss her. She can picture only the weightlessness, the smooth waves of her limbs as she dances through the hemlocks on her way to the next.
Written to Anand (Bliss) by Snatum Kaur

It was fun. I feel like I exercised my brain in a new way, I look forward to participating in more of these, and I feel good that I’m doing more than just stockpiling submission ideas.

If you’ve written outside of your go-to style lately, how did it go?


Dealing With Rejection

Yesterday my manuscript received its first rejection. I found out moments after being fitted for a helmet for a horseback trail ride with my eight-year-old daughter. I’d pulled my iPhone from my pocket to make sure the camera was ready to go, and decided to check my email given that I’d followed up with the agent a few hours earlier.

I read his words – that I’m a “terrific writer” but the story sounded a bit too familiar and he wasn’t convinced he could get a major publisher on board, that he hoped other agents would feel differently, and that he wished me the very best of luck – and had to accept he wasn’t going to be the agent to represent me.

An agent I desperately wanted to represent me.

The wacky part is that I was okay. Even after five years of working on this manuscript, and after all the serendipitous moments that led up to and continued through the writing, I had come to a place where I have to believe that publication will happen, and will happen in a glorious way I simply can’t visualize yet.

I’m not sure whether I’ve got it all together or am delusional. As my mom says, “Time will tell.” But I do know that I couldn’t have been in a better place to receive the disappointing news. My horse’s name was Carl, and for an hour holding his reins through leafy parkland and overgrown fields filled with wildflowers, I concentrated on the sounds around us: the creak of my saddle, the croak of the frogs, the swish of horse tails. I stared at my daughter’s back in front of me. I closed my eyes and meditated (only for a few moments at a time; I was nearly ejected within the first ten minutes of the ride when Carl tripped and hadn’t been the steadiest in my seat since).

Beauty in it all.

I feel blessed to have a manuscript I believe in, that my beta readers believe in. Time to move forward on this project and start the next one.

I do wonder why I’m not allowing myself a pity party. Maybe because that would put my focus on the rejection and not on what needs to happen next to get this thing published. Who knows? Maybe I’ll feel differently at a highly inopportune time and fall to pieces while pumping gas or on my way to interview a client.

For now, I continue to see that there’s more to finding the right fit for my manuscript – to life, in fact – than we’re often able to predict. This morning, for instance, another happy accident. In the few moments I had to glance at Twitter, I clicked on only one link, which led to a blog by London author Jessica Thompson. Her perspective lost after learning some major retailers wouldn’t be stocking her third novel because sales of her second weren’t as good as her first, she found comfort in words from her dad, which I’m sharing here because they’re poignant and altogether true:

“I’m an old man now, but every night I sit in my garden and think, another day, how nice. Another day with my family in my life, and my dog, and that’s really how you have to start seeing things Jess…Readjust your viewpoint on the world, you’ve not failed. Life is a relay race, and every step ahead leads you on to the next level. Nothing is wasted, and everything you do that takes you forward is positive. So what, you’ll probably never be famous, and so what, you’ll probably never be a millionaire, but you’ve done so incredibly well, no one can take that away from you, and the fact that you are a wonderful writer.”

This is what we writers need to trust: that we have succeeded because we are doing what we love to do. Because of this project I have developed close friendships, experimented with a more creative writing style, and received validation from a professional I greatly respect.

How can I be sad about that?

If you’re up for sharing your rejection story (and aftermath), I’m all ears. What we have in common makes us stronger…


When a 104-year-old Doesn’t Want to be Interviewed…

It’s not every day you get the chance to interview a 104-year-old woman. So when that chance came to me yesterday, I brought along my 8-year-old daughter. After passing on what I knew – that this woman was feisty and none too thrilled about being asked a bunch of questions – she looked at me and said, “I’m scared.”

The story was this: Two women in Upstate New York had started a crowdfunding campaign to help Nona Schurman, a former professional modern dancer, remain independent in her own apartment. She has no immediate family, lives almost exclusively on Social Security, and uses her savings to pay for part-time, in-home aid workers who help with personal care, shopping, cooking and cleaning. By the end of 2014 her savings account will be depleted and she’ll be forced to enter a nursing home.

I learned about the campaign through an email blast, pitched it to my local newspaper, and showed up yesterday to find out more about this woman who canoed well into her eighties and is writing a book on choreography.

Though her tone was gruff, she welcomed us into her home and showed us our seats, explaining that the top snap on her housecoat never wants to stay closed. Then I took a notebook and pen out of my purse.

“I don’t understand what you want,” she said. “You’re a reporter?”


“Well, that’s disappointing. Go ahead.”

I turned to my daughter and let out a surprised chuckle. I began to talk to Nona about her situation, but she interrupted me to argue that she was not in danger of losing her apartment, that the management said she could live rent-free for as long as she wanted, and that people should get the story straight. I wasn’t going to tell her she’s confused and wrong. Immediately I dropped the notebook and pen back into my purse and apologized for any inconvenience. I’d heard that it had taken a lot for her to agree to a story about her in the first place, that she was a proud woman who didn’t want to accept help from strangers, and it certainly didn’t feel like my place to push the issue. Over her stream of objections, I stood up, motioned for my daughter to follow, and apologized for any misunderstanding. That’s what she needed to hear.

Then her voice changed.

“Will you do this snap for me?”

Her face had softened, too, and as she stood there, bent over her walker, looking at me hopefully, my heart ached. Here was this woman who wanted nothing more than to be in control of her life, yet she needed someone – anyone – to help her get dressed. When she shut the door, I said, “I need a hug.”

I called my editor and told her the story was a bust. But I still feel a need to share it, so here it is, as well as a link for more information:

I’d love to hear what you think.