Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Blessings Multiplied

There is a program begun by the Episcopal Church Women (ECW) of the United States that dates back to the 1800s—the United Thank Offering. Members of the congregation are provided with a “little blue box,” a cardboard piggy bank with a slot in the top of it. As church members go about their day they drop a coin in the slot with a little prayer of thanksgiving for the common and uncommon blessings of daily life: a baby’s smile, rain after a period of drought, a raise or promotion, a healing conversation, etc. The monies are collected biannually and sent in to the United Thank Offering fund which supplies grants for ministries and programs throughout the Anglican Communion in the states and world wide. Examples of projects that have received funding are a program to create a video and facilitators’ guide to address bullying in the schools, renovation of an unused parish refectory into apartments for the homeless, purchase of a van that will be used to deliver food, medical care and other services to those too far from the city center to receive help any other way.

I love the elegant simplicity of this idea. It’s better than the gratitude journals that became popular a few years ago, because our gratitude is converted into action; it has a ripple effect that makes the whole world a better place. To acknowledge the gifts we receive from each other and from life daily is psychologically beneficial. It makes us happier, reduces our stress, makes us see all of life in a new, more positive light. But to stop there is a bit self-serving. The “little blue box” ensures that I not only feel good but that the joy ripples outward. I am no longer a passive receiver but an agent of good and a catalyst for happiness in other lives.

In my family we began a practice of setting the “little blue box” in the middle of the dinner table and a few coins beside each of our plates. In lieu of a prayer, we each announce the blessings we are aware of that day and drop our coins into the box. Listening to each other, we become aware of blessings we hadn’t thought of, and our gratitude increases yet again.

Whatever your religion, creed or beliefs, I invite you to establish a thanksgiving piggy bank of your own. When your box is full, convert the money into a check and send it to the charity of your choice. We who have so much can do so much more in this simple and lovely way.
To find out more about the United Thank Offering visit:


Monday, October 7, 2013

An Interview with Author and Therapist, Jan Marquart

Jan Marquart is a psychotherapist and author who has written in every imaginable genre from fiction to memoir to poetry to self-help. She won the Writer's Digest Self-Published award in 2000 for The Breath of Dawn and the Achievement in Poetry Award by the International Library of Poetry in 2005. She is founder and CEO of About the Author Network, an organization dedicated to helping authors write, publish and sell their books.

She will be leading a Story Circle Network Writing from Life workshop November 2, 2013 in Austin, TX. For information and to register visit:

Lisa: How did you become both a writer and a therapist?

Jan: I was born in Brooklyn and lived there until I decided to go to college in California. I quit a great job as a legal secretary on Wall Street which disturbed my parents, but I couldn’t see myself taking shorthand and typing someone else’s ideas forever. I wanted to find out what I thought and desired to write since I was eight but tucked it away when my parents didn’t show an interest. When I enrolled in UCSC I met a friend who recommended I keep a journal. I have written every day since June, 1972. I studied philosophy and then got my master in Social Work.

Lisa: What do you wish people knew about you?
Jan: That is a great question. I have felt misunderstood most of my life and I realized that the thinking many people do is so limited and fearful. I suppose that’s why I write so much. When the pressure builds inside me I have to say it somehow, through some genre and still keep hope and faith. It takes a lot for me to ask for help, not because I can’t ask but because I don’t believe my life’s problems belong to anyone but me. I’d like people to know that for anyone who is suffering, me or anyone else, to receive an offer of help restores faith in humanity.
Lisa: Evidence for and trusting one's own intuition seems to be a major theme in much of your writing. Can you speak a little about that?
Jan: In the last twenty something years I had quite a few people tell me I couldn't do something while something inside me told me I could. They thought I just wanted to battle with them but I wasn't battling. I wasn't being recalcitrant. I truly knew I could do what they said I couldn't and proceeded from there. Turns out I did everything others told me I couldn't. So when people tell me what they think I am or am not capable of, I listen to the message from my gut. Sometimes my gut agrees and sometimes it doesn't. When I know better and I rationalize a reason not to listen to that voice, I suffer terribly. Listen to everyone but rarely take their comments to heart, especially when it comes to your capability.
Lisa: Of all the various genres you have tried, which seemed to come most naturally? Which was most challenging?
Jan: Once I start writing I don't feel as if I'm struggling with any of them. I think poetry is the most challenging because I don't know any formal poetry styles. I just write according to the power that comes through me.
Lisa: Do you use an editor or agent?
Jan: I had an agent for Kate's Way. I got her name from Lynn Andrews after asking her for and endorsement for [my how-to book] The Mindful Writer. As far as editors – I hire retired school teachers, friends, strangers, and anyone who would read my manuscripts. I like getting ordinary readers to give me their comments. All writers need to know that it takes other people to tell them what they like to read. We write in isolation but we must come out into the world with our manuscripts to see if they even make sense. I only make the changes that don't compromise the integrity of what I've written.
Lisa: What advice would you give to beginning writers?
Jan: Don't worry about how to discipline yourself to write. Don't worry about whether you can write or not. If you have something to say simply say it. You can't edit or publish anything unless you have written something first. I hear writers tell me in my workshops how frightened they are that someone they love will be angry at what they write. In my experience too many people don't do what they desire because of the criticism of narrow-minded and fear-based people. This is a dangerous place for writers. Write. Let other people decide how to behave around what you write.
From The Mindful Writer: Still the Mind, Free the Pen

"As a writer, going spelunking into your own experience may awaken ghosts and reveal black hearted wishes. But life has ways of forcing us to come to grips with the darkness so we can find the light in order to survive. What is your way to the light?"
"We call it 'writer's block' but there is no block. There is only our personal rhythm of experience."
 "I have found that all of life takes courage, relentless courage, and writing is no different."
From Echoes from the Womb: A Book for Daughters
"Daughters cannot help but take their mothers with them into their own old age. From conception to death we carry our mothers with us."
"We do stop crying and our pain can ease up if we face it with courage and hope. Learning how to suffer is a skill."
"You can pick and choose which pieces you want in the quilt of your future life and which ones you don't."



Monday, September 23, 2013

Wanting What I Already Have

Recently I have made a commitment to begin my days reading something spiritual. My first selection is by Joan Chittister, OSB, a profoundly wise little book, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today. It amazes me how this book, published in 1991, before the world wide web, still speaks of the same challenges we now face: how to live a holy life in a world that is ever closer and more connected, with technology that dominates our time and consumerism that invades our consciousness. "In a world in which the planet has become the neighborhood and our personal lives are made up of unending streams of people," she writes, "the Rule of Benedict with its accent on the spiritual qualities of life lived in common may never have been more relevant. I have begun to see under the covers of this age-old monastic rule a semblance of sanity to the insanity of   the world around me." (p. 11-12) What would she have made of the "unending streams of people" I can speak to  and they to me via the timeline of my Facebook page? Or a world in which I can download an entire library to my Kindle in less than an hour? Or a BOGO culture in which I get two blouses when I only really needed one, just because the second one was free?
The craziness of this massively inter-connected world is that amidst this plenty we can find ourselves very empty indeed. The shallowness of constant conversation via email and social media does not make up for the lost intimacy of a real, deep, nourishing conversation with a true friend. A closet full of clothes can hide the few, precious, beloved garments that bring back the best and brightest memories. A shelf full of books can camouflage the wisest and most life-changing favorites (like this one) amidst all the others I've "been meaning to read." Wisdom Distilled from the Daily gives us one approach through the ancient Rule of Saint Benedict as interpreted by this wise woman. "We have to come to understand that we have been allotted our portion of the goods of the earth; we have not been given the goods of the universe for our own personal consumption. We own this earth in common with the poor. We have to learn the difference between needs and wants so that the needs of all can be supplied, which doesn't mean that my own life must be narrow or restricted. It simply means I must come to understand the difference between having it all and having everything." (p. 72.)

Having it all vs. having everything. Having it all doesn't make me happier, it just creates more work, more things to dust, more things to wade through. And it leads to a world where a few have too much and too many have too little. Having everything is simply having that--and only that--which is necessary to live a life in balance, where work and leisure, solitude and companionship, the mundane and the sacred exist in equal measure. That kind of monasticism does not require I renounce my family or give away all my possessions or move into a convent. It simply means that I must focus on wanting what I have rather than trying to have whatever I want.

Monday, September 16, 2013

An Interview with the Story Circle Network's 2012 Sarton Memoir Winner, Monica Wood

Lisa: Your memoir, When We Were the Kennedys,  tells the story of your father’s sudden and unexpected death of a heart attack and how your family experienced that staggering event. How were able to write about such a painful time?
Monica:  Oh, but the writing was the opposite of painful! I loved being “back home,” even in the fraught year I was revisiting. I have such wonderful memories of my childhood, and my family at that time. Being with them again was a balm to my soul.

Lisa: Who were you thinking of as you wrote?

Monica: My audience for this book, for the first time in forever, was me. Just me. I’d hit a rough patch, both professionally and personally, and I was writing for comfort and consolation, not for publication. It was the most joyful writing I’d done in years.

Lisa: Your memoir is full of your early experiences with the love of words and books and stories. You describe in great detail the reams of beautiful paper that your father brought home from his job at the paper mill and the hours and hours you and your siblings spent filling the pages with drawings and stories.

Monica: Well, I come from Irish stock, and a love of words is in the DNA. Everyone in my family tells a great story. I do wonder, though, if being from a paper-mill town might have nudged me along the writing path. I love paper: I love its smell, its feel, its possibilities. Unlike a lot of writers, a blank page fills me with joy, not dread.

Lisa: Let’s talk a bit about those great family stories. What makes them so powerful?

Monica: I teach memoir writing now, and I don't think I'll ever go back to teaching fiction. I've seen first hand the power of speaking stories aloud, of simply putting on paper the tragic or ordinary or quirky or mundane. I teach in a women's prison and I see every week how their stories not only make them reflect on who they are, but how their stories connect them to one another in a place where human connection can be really risky.

Lisa: What else did you learn from doing the book?

Monica:  I learned that I have one memoir in me. I learned that voice is the key element in memoir. I learned that my skills as a novelist served me well in writing nonfiction.  And I learned that every particular family story is universal.

You can learn more about Monica Wood on her website:

“The Catholic tradition of my childhood—which I recall with affection, some awe, and a measure of yearning—did not allow for randomness. Every word and deed, every sorrow and triumph, every birth and death belonged to a Divine Plan. If at times you thought this Plan unreasonable, senseless, or just plain mean, you were asked to trust that even the most extreme sorrow had to be a blessing in disguise. Almost everything essential came to you in disguise.” P. 160

“We listen, all three, absorbing the sound as children from the coast might absorb the tidal sighing of a nearby sea, an ebb and flow so enduring that after a time the sound appears to be coming from within your own unsuspecting self. It’s been a long seven months, April to November, a tender time bracketed by death. A father, a president; the one grieved only by us, the other by a whole spacious-sky, purple-mountains-majesty, grain-waving country. I listen, with my sisters, in a kind of stupefied surrender, as the mill’s enduring breath smoothes over us, inhale, exhale.” P. 198


Monday, September 9, 2013

Book Review: When We Were the Kennedys

Monica Wood is the author of four works of fiction, most recently Any Bitter Thing, which spent twenty-one weeks on the American Booksellers Association extended best-seller list and was named a Book Sense Top Ten pick. Her other fiction includes Ernie’s Ark, Secret Language, and My Only Story, a finalist for the Kate Chopin Award. Her moving memoir, When We Were the Kennedys, is the winner of the Story Circle Network's 2012 Sarton Memoir Award.


“Our story, like the mill, hummed in the background of our every hour, a tale of quest and hope that resonated similarly in all the songs in all the blocks and houses, in the headlong shouts of all the children at play, in the murmur of all the graces said at all the kitchen tables. In my family, in every family, that story—with its implied happy ending—hinged on a single, beautiful, unbreakable, immutable fact: Dad. Then he died.”


Monica Wood’s writing is simply luminous as she magically conjures up a lost place and time — a small industrial Eastern town on the eve of the Kennedy assassination. The story of her father's sudden shattering death and her family's attempt to cope with the incomprehensible loss is brought
to vivid life through her precise and poetic prose. Her skill at characterization is so refined that I felt as though I really knew each of them personally: her no-nonsense little sister, Cathy; her solid, dependable big sister Anne; her forever-young handicapped sister Betty; her overwhelmed and anxious mother and heart-broken Catholic Priest uncle, "Father Bob;" her sometimes incomprehensible Lithuanian landlords the Norkuses and, of course, her beloved dad. Wood’s story begins the morning of her father’s death of sudden cardiac arrest on the way to his job at the local paper mill. Told through the perspective of her fourth-grade self we experience her shock as she struggles to understand what the loss will mean for herself, her mother and her siblings. Her poignant realization that anyone can be taken from us at any time is painfully raw and moving. Through her eyes we watch her family's sometimes incomprehensible response to grief, her mother, a widow, standing still and alone in a dark room, unable to return to her empty bed; her beloved uncle’s hidden alcoholism and brief institutionalization. “We were an ordinary family;” she writes, “a mill family, not the stuff of opera. And yet…my memory of that day reverberates down the decades as something close to music. Emotion, sensation, intuition. I see the day—or chips and bits, as if looking through a kaleidoscope—but I also hear it, a faraway composition in the melodious language of grief….” (p. 7) We watch as young Monica escapes her grief by delving into the world of Little Women and Nancy Drew and attempts to write her own novel poignantly titled The Mystery of the Missing Man. Here is a child in love with words, who copies them over and over on the beautifully made paper her father had brought home from the mill. Here is a child with the keen observational skills of the gifted author she will become.
This is an excerpt from a review that first appeared in the Story Circle Journal and on the Story Circle Book Review Site. To read more visit:



Monday, September 2, 2013

In Honor of Labor Day: What I Like About Weekends, Weekdays and a Little About the Sabbath

Being a piano teacher means most of my home is a public space. My living room connects to the dining room where my piano is located, and all that separates the dining room from the kitchen is a counter. In other words, my students and their parents can see almost the entire house except the bedrooms and the master bath. They have access to the other bathroom off the hallway.

Consequently, on teaching days, most of my house needs to be immaculate. I dust the living room and dining room, completely clean the kitchen and "guest" bath, vacuum and if I have time, sweep the sidewalk and porch leading to my front door. With the labor day weekend, I get a little break from the "my house must look perfect" compulsion.

With that in mind, and in honor of the Labor Day holiday, I thought I would write another list like the one I did about "how I know it's summer." So here, in no particular order, is a list of what I like about weekends. To keep a balanced perspective I followed it with, "what I like about weekdays."

What I like about weekends:
I can allow books and coffee mugs and knitting projects to accumulate on the living room tables.
If there are a couple of balls of dog fur fluff on the carpet, I don't need to panic.
If my husband leaves out his shaving cream and my daughter's toothpaste globs are congealing in the sink, I can ignore them.
I can wear my sweat pants or baggy jeans and a stained t-shirt with socks and flip flops if I want to.
It's OK if there are dirty dishes all over the kitchen counter.
I don't have to set the alarm clock.
I can stay up late and watch a movie.
There are people in my house to share the chores and to have fun with and talk to.

What I like about weekdays:
There are no people in my house; it's quiet and I can get work done.
Things don't get very messy because I have to stay on top of it.
Afterwards I get to read, play piano or work in a nice, tidy, comfortable space.
I get to do things my way.
I get to dress up and put on makeup which is creative and fun.
I have to get up to get my daughter off to school, so the day is longer and I get more accomplished.
I get to do work I'm passionate about and which is rewarding, interesting and even fun.
I miss my family, so appreciate them more when we sit down to dinner and talk about our days.

When all is said and done, what I really like is the switch from one mode to the other, from workday to rest day, like the change of seasons. Maybe that whole Sabbath idea is a good one. I like the idea of the Creator resting after six (or five) days of making something intricate and awe-inspiringly beautiful.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Lesson in Being Human

Recently I have recognized a tendency I have to cover embarrassment or being at a loss for words with humor. The trouble is, in such situations, there isn't enough time to reflect on the impact of what I'm saying, and what I think is funny might truly be insensitive or even cruel. One of the harder lessons of life is how easy it is to hurt people even when your intentions are good. Humor can be a way to turn an awkward moment, to bond people together, to lighten the mood. But it is tricky and fraught with the capacity to harm. My fat mouth gets me into trouble. And once words fly out of your mouth, you can't take them back.

I'm not always sure how to make amends. Often, too much time has passed, or the conversation has moved on. Sometimes explaining what made me uncomfortable--what led me to try to fill the awkwardness with humor--only makes the situation more awkward. How hard it is to redeem myself in my own eyes! I know I'm only human, but I want so hard to be a good person, to be a kind person. I want to make peoples' lives easier, not harder and more painful.

Sometimes I find, the only answer is prayer. Meditation on my faults--if I am not afraid to admit them--is an important exercise in humility. And by humility I don't mean groveling on the ground and bemoaning my wickedness. Humility is not humiliation. "Humility" derives from the Latin word, "humus" or ground, earth as in dirt. So to be humble is to be grounded. It is to have a right mind about your place in the grand scheme of things, to not take yourself so seriously. Humility can actually be very freeing because it allows us to be human.

 "Humiliation may teach us a lot about oppression, or a lot about underdevelopment or a great deal about anger, but it will not necessarily prove that we have learned anything about humility. Benedictine humility frees the spirit; it does not batter it." 
from Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of Benedict Today by Joan Chittister, OSB.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

One Thing

After reading Gretchin Rubin's latest book, Happier at Home, I decided to discover some simple rules like she had which I could follow to make my life happier.  Instead of writing them in a journal, though, I would write them on the bathroom mirror with a dry erase marker where they'd be the first thing I'd see in the morning and would be right in front of my face periodically throughout my day. The first rule I selected is what I call "one thing."

"One thing" is the idea that you can only really ever do one thing at a time. It's been called the practice of "mindfulness" or "attention"--what spiritual guru, Ram Dass, called "being here now." Mindfulness has gotten a lot of press. It's made it's way from a new age, hip, Eastern-inspired spiritual discipline to main stream psychiatry where it's being used to treat everything from chronic pain to depression to addictive disorders. I became interested in it as a way to bring spiritual discipline and awareness into my daily life.

Too often I've found myself cranky, impatient and stressed out by my "to do" list.  "One thing" helps me step back and take a breath--I can enjoy the feel of hot, soapy water and the smell of the dish soap when I wash up after supper instead of feeling crabby that I've got a sink full of dishes to finish on the way to some other chore. I can focus on the story my 14-year-old is telling me instead of mentally fast-forwarding to my next appointment. I can relish the feel of my husband's hand in mine and not get distracted by the mental chatterbox in my head. And the funny part is, when I focus on just one moment at a time and eek out all the sensory richness of it, time seems to slow down. I may not always get more accomplished, but the day feels more complete and, well, holy. It turns out, "one thing"really can make a difference, one thing at a time.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

“How I Know it’s Summer”

The water coming out of the tap is warm enough to activate yeast.

I’m afraid to open the blinds and drapes before sunset.

My white antique roses are a toasty brown.

The dehumidifier is full by 2pm.

The car thermometer says “99” when I pull out of the garage and “107” when I hit the highway.

If I haven’t driven there and done it by 2, I’m not leaving the house. It can wait.

I don’t feel like baking.

All our meals involve recipes that don’t require an oven.

I switch from a nice Merlot to an icy-cold Moscato.

There are no kids walking to and from school past my living room window.

I don’t have to get up and make my daughter a sack lunch.

There’s a kid in my house 24/7.

I am vigilant about shaving my legs and getting my toe nails painted.

I weigh, every day, the difficult decision—can my colored hair get wet in the pool or do I have to wait one more day?

There is a bottle of water and sunscreen and a floppy hat in my car at all times.

I’m afraid to sit on a metal picnic bench.

Even the idea of a picnic just makes me tired.

Frozen pickle juice “pops” sound appealing.

There are more people in the choir and serving at the altar than there are people in the congregation.

If it isn’t air-conditioned, I’m not interested.

I’m hot in a bathing suit.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Author Interview: Patricia Charpentier

Patricia Charpentier began her writing career at the age of 14 as the “Teen Talk” columnist of her small town newspaper. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Louisiana State University and a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Central Florida. She worked briefly as a feature writer and photographer before settling into a twenty-eight-year career in the IT side of mortgage banking. She returned to writing and became interested in her family history but realized all those who held the answers to her questions were gone. She turned her own loss into passion, ghostwriting memoirs on behalf of others, as well as co-authoring, editing, teaching and speaking. She is the author of the award-winning book, Eating an Elephant: Write Your Life One Bite at a Time, owner of Writing Your Life, a company devoted to personal and family history writing, and artist in residence at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Orlando, Florida. In May she will lead a writing workshop onboard Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas en route to Labadee, Haiti, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel, Mexico. (Visit

This interview first appeared in the Story Circle Journal, the quarterly magazine of the Story Circle Network, a women's life-writing organization. For information visit:

Lisa: Tell us a little about yourself. What do you think are the primary reasons you became a writer and a teacher?

Patricia: I was born in the deep bayous of South Louisiana, in the heart of Cajun Country. My relatives represented a good portion of the 400 people who lived in the tiny town of Charenton, approximately 120 miles southwest of New Orleans. When I was in my twenties, my mother gave me a copy of our family tree that dated back to 1642. I glanced at it briefly and threw it in a desk drawer. I came across the genealogy twenty years later in a move and was now fascinated by the names, dates, and places. I wanted to know more but everyone who held the stories was gone. That deep regret motivated me. I did not want anyone else to lose the opportunity to know where they came from, so I started to encourage others to write their life stories for those who came after them.

Lisa: What were some other turning points in your life journey?

Patricia: A huge turning point in my life occurred when I quit my job as a feature writer and photographer. It was the exact job I had wanted since I was fourteen years old, and when I gave up on it, I gave up on myself. That decision ushered in a world of hurt, and I wandered around lost, not knowing who I was or what I wanted, for ten years. From my perspective now, I can see I was afraid and didn’t know how I was going to continue to sustain the success I was experiencing. I didn’t know enough at the time to ask for help. I know it now, so fear no longer makes my decisions for me.

Lisa:  What made you decide to write Eating an Elephant: Write Your Life One Bite at a Time?

Patricia: I began to hear from those in my classes, “You need to write a book. You need to be able to help people all over write their stories.” I pushed the notion aside for many years, but in 2010, I decided I’d give it a try. I bought a stack of index cards and wrote one topic I’d like to cover in the book on each card. Every time I thought of something else, I wrote it on a card and slipped it in the pile held together with a red rubber band. When I had a stack about two inches tall, I figured I had a book. I wrote it for anyone who has a story to tell but especially for those who don’t think they have to skills to do so.

Lisa:  What was the biggest challenge you faced writing it?

Patricia: Carving out the time to do it! In February 2010, I was laid off of my last mortgage technology job. My husband I decided it might be time for me to try teaching and writing personal and family history as a full-time endeavor. I was starting a business, trying to make enough money writing, editing and teaching to stay afloat, marketing, saying yes to every speaking, teaching and writing opportunity that came my way. I couldn’t imagine how I’d find the time to write a book, so I did what I encouraged my students to do: write one bite at a time. I grabbed my stack of index cards and began writing the book one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time until I finally ran out of index cards and topics.

Lisa: What is the most important message in your book?
Patricia: That you can’t write your life story wrong. I try to give people permission to write, to put their ninth grade English teachers who turned their papers into bloody red messes into the closet and write from their hearts, to know that whatever they write will be appreciated by someone they love, and that person won’t care if there’s a comma splice or a dangling modifier.

Lisa:  What was your favorite part of writing it?

Patricia: I loved sharing my Cajun culture with people, writing the glossary and coming up with examples that were reflective of the people and the place where I grew up. I had a number of nice conversations with my mother as I ran some of my Cajun spellings and French words by her to make sure they were accurate. I had a lot of fun writing this book. I sought to make it entertaining and humorous as well as helpful.

Lisa:   Do you have a writing practice or any special rituals?

Patricia: That’s a good question. Between teaching, speaking, and writing for others, my own writing routinely gets shoved to the bottom of the pile. One thing I’ve done faithfully for more than eight years now is write in a five-year journal every night. Each night before we go to sleep, my husband, Bob, and I pull out the journal and fill in the five or six lines with the events of the day, thoughts, hopes, dreams, whatever happens to be on our mind. Then we read back over the past years—five years show up on the same page—and relive those moments together. Those few minutes each night have become a nice time for us. After not being pleased with the quality of the few five-year journals on the market, I finally published my own last year. People can read more about it on my website at

Lisa:  What are some of your favorite “bites” from Eating an Elephant?

Patricia: I love Bite #18 and its admonition to be careful with writing rituals if they involve fire. It tells a sweet story about young love and the time I burned a hole in my laptop because I was too focused on my then boyfriend, now my husband, and not on the candle I’d left burning!

Bite #104 – Stop in the Middle. This is one of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received. Instead of looking for a natural break to end a writing session, stop right in the middle of a thought. It’s so contrary to my nature, but when I do it, I pick it right up the next time without a lot of running in place.

Lisa: Why do you think we “set ourselves up for failure” when we try to write our life stories chronologically from birth to the present?

Patricia: Our minds don’t typically work in a linear fashion, so when we try to write that way, we are going against our natural creativity. I believe we have to be out of control to write well, and requiring ourselves to write chronologically forces us to write in a controlled manner. I encourage people to write what’s on their heart. That’s where the power is. Write now, organize later.

Lisa: What are some of your favorite ways to conjure up buried memories?

Patricia: Our sense of smell is so closely tied to our memories. We can use that to our advantage by seeking out scents associated with our childhoods. When I want to write about my dad who was a carpenter, I roam the aisles of Home Depot and absorb the smells of the lumber. It takes me right back to hanging out with him in his shop behind our house.

Lisa: Let’s talk a little bit about voice. How can a writer find her own voice?

Patricia: I believe the only way a person can find his or her voice is to write. I know that sounds trite, but it’s true. We can’t think or wish our way into a voice; we have to write our way into it. It helps to try on different styles of writing, to mimic other writers as an exercise to see what fits and what doesn’t, but in the end, our style must be our own. Write when no one is looking. Write something that you know you’ll never allow someone to read. Write for only your eyes, and through that, I believe some of your true voice can be heard.

Lisa: Describe your own journey to find your voice.

Patricia: I did everything they tell you not to do. I wasn’t interested in sounding like me; I wanted to have a voice like some famous writer. I remember wanting to write like E.B. White. I loved his folksy, down-to-earth style. What he wrote seemed so simple and straightforward. I tried and tried to write like him. I dissected his sentences and superimposed them on my own writing, but it all fell flat. I got so frustrated because it seemed so simple. Why couldn’t I do that? I tried to be a nature writer…. I read naturalist authors, went to conferences, read how-to books, but nothing I ever wrote had a genuine feel to it. It all felt written. I finally had to quit trying to be some other writer and settle for just being me. But all those misguided attempts did me a lot of good. I learned a great deal about writing in the process and found that I was drawn to certain writers and particular writing styles because my voice shared some of the same characteristics. My voice is simple. I don’t use a lot of fancy words. I write about ordinary things. I add humor in whenever possible, and I love to poke fun at myself with my words.

Lisa: What are you looking forward to these days?

Patricia: I’m excited about the Writing the Waves cruise. The writing workshops will be small and intimate, so everyone will get lots of personal attention with their stories. I’m also in the pre-writing stages of a workbook to go along with Eating an Elephant: Write Your Life One Bite at a Time. The workbook will guide people through the process of writing their life stories with specific assignments and exercises, using the contents of Eating an Elephant as a guide.

Lisa:  Any last words for us?

Patricia: I always like to leave people with the motto of all my talks, classes and workshops: The only way to do this wrong is to not do it at all!

For more about Patricia, her classes, books and events visit her website:

Quotes from Eating an Elephant: Write Your Life One Bite at a Time

“Most people don’t even write their life stories for fear of doing it wrong. We all have a ninth-grade English teacher sitting on our shoulders, red pen in hand, whispering in our ears, ‘What makes you think you can write?’”

“My advice? Start anywhere. Write now. Organize later.”

“You can’t go wrong writing what’s in your heart.”

“I often tell my friends that I don’t have a memory problem; I have a filing problem. I know whatever I need is in my brain, somewhere; it’s merely misfiled.”

“Making a list is one of the best ways I’ve found to begin eating an elephant. The bites are small, you can eat them quickly and they are easy to digest.”

“The only way through writer’s block is to write your way out. If you consistently show up at the page, your chances of recovery are great. If you don’t, your disease is fatal.”

“No perfect writing schedule exists; you just have to find one which works for you.”

“Writing is a creative activity; editing is a logical process, and they don’t play well together.”

“Power resides in pain. These strong emotions have an energy, which transfers mightily to the page.”


Monday, January 28, 2013

Book Review of A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief

Sheila Bender is an award-winning poet, writer, writing coach and teacher. She has published essays, poems and reviews in numerous literary magazines, anthologies and newspapers as well as articles and columns about writing in Writers Digest magazine and The Writer. She is the author of many how-to writing books including Writing and Publishing Personal Essays; Creative Writing Demystified; A Year in the Life: Journaling for Self-Discovery; Writing Personal Poetry: Creating Poems from Your Life Experience; and Perfect Phrases for College Application Essays. She teaches classes and coaches writers through her website and online magazine, Writing It Real. She has published three poetry collections including her most recent, Behind Us the Way Grows Wider, and is co-author with Christi Killien of Writing in a New Convertible with the Top Down: A Unique Guide for Writers. Through donations and proceeds from her book, New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief, Sheila helps support the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s Seth Bender Memorial Summer Camps Scholarship Fund founded in honor of her son who was killed in a snowboarding accident. In 2009 she published the book to help others  cope with loss in their lives. She will lead the Story   Circle Network’s Lifelines Writing Retreat in March of 2013.

In A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief, Sheila Bender offers a deeply moving account of the untimely loss of her young adult son, Seth, in a snowboarding accident just months before his anticipated wedding. Writing in present tense, Bender pulls us into her experience with an immediacy that is both painful and healing, universal and intimate. Interspersed in the narrative are poems she wrote both before her tragic loss and afterward including the villanelle, “A New Theology” from which she draws her title.

 As the book opens we are transported right into the Denver hospital room where the curtains are drawn against bright sunlight and the respirator “whooshes” with the rise and fall of Seth’s chest as the respirator breathes for him.  Watching and waiting for the angiogram that will prove her son’s brain is no longer receiving blood she wonders why she is not angry at him for not wearing a helmet or angry at those who were with him for not insisting he do so. “Anger will trivialize this day, make what I need to do impossible,” she
writes. “Today, more than ever, my boy is an altar to which we bring our love. His shocking early death not a shock at all, exactly, but a finished poem….” (p. 25)

In the months that follow as she grieves, exploring the painful “what-ifs” and working to accept Seth’s death while honoring his life, as she struggles to return to her teaching and writing and the business of living, Sheila turns again and again to poetry as a vehicle to move her beyond her terrible loss to a sense of continuing connection with her son who now “has no likeness of a body and has no body.” (p. 102) Her writing is rich with details that draw us directly into her experience as she sprinkles Seth’s ashes at the beautiful Gold Mountain Resort site where his wedding was to be and in the waters of Discovery Bay in Port Townsend where he liked to kayak, or as she reminisces about his unique take on life with family and friends and attends memorials in his honor, as she cooks chili from Seth’s favorite recipes or walks through the home he designed. In and amongst the exquisite detail are poems—poems she read and poems she wrote on her journey to accept the unacceptable. The power of the written word and especially of poetry to capture, hold and transcend her experience and memories becomes a pathway, a kind of map for all who have suffered loss and tragedy and sought to both overcome and honor it.

This review first appeared at, a site devoted solely to books by, for and about women.