Your Characters’ Secrets

Everyone has secrets. Anything that is known only to oneself (maybe one other person) is a secret. It can be a regret, betrayal, desire, fear, confession, past humiliation—anything unknown.
post secret
Frank Warren tapped into the breadth and depth of secrets when he invited people to return postcards anonymously revealing a secret as part of a group art project. The response was extraordinary, and Post Secret became an international phenomenon—and a book. Here are three randomly selected offerings from this book.


“I can’t think of a secret. Except—I don’t think I’m interesting enough to have a secret.”
“I don’t care about recycling (but I pretend to).”


“I didn’t tell people I was running a marathon for fear they’s be nauseated by visions of my FAT ASS bouncing down the street.”


my secret post secret
The art project ended but the postcards kept coming. In two years he received over 50,000 postcards. This led to a second book, containing many secrets shared by young people. Here are three examples.


“If I charged the people I babysit for by the SCREAM I’d be rich.”


“I’m only friends with rich girls.”


“I told my family, the school nurse, and my optometrist that I couldn’t see the last rows just so that I would get glasses like my friends.”


secret lives men women frank warren
Eventually there were so many postcards that they could be sorted into related themes. The result was The Secret Lives of Men and Women.  The secrets revealed include the following:


“I’ve been with my wife for twenty years and she doesn’t know who I am.”


“I didn’t take a pill last night. Even if you leave me, I’ll have part of you to love forever.

“I have both a wife and a girlfriend and I’ve never been lonelier.”


“All of my exes bat for the other team.”


lifetime secrets frank warren
Many secrets have a hold on a person for years. Many of these are captured in A Lifetime of SecretsFor example,


“I still remember my rapist’s birthday.”


“My best friend slept with the only man I ever loved. Their son is in college now. I still drive by their house.”


“I only allow myself to read your letters once a year (9/17). Then, I let myself fantasize how my life would be different if you were still around. Sometimes I find myself hating you because it’s easier than missing you.”


“Finally I truly wish you well.”


Why give your characters secrets? It adds depth to them, makes them more like real people. In addition, depending on the secret, it can add humor, intra-psychic tension, or the motivation for behavior in various situations. Feel free to give a character a secret of your own. Or make one up. Or consult Frank Warren’s treasure troves!


post secret confessions on life death and god

Vicarious Adventure

My personal adventures have been relatively tame: parasailing in the Bahamas, zip-lining in Costa Rica, draping an anaconda around my shoulders in the Amazon rainforest. (FYI: Anaconda poop bleaches clothing.) But I’ve always enjoyed vicarious adventures—women’s adventures.


This started when I was in elementary school. I read the adventures of Ruth Fielding in a series of books owned by my paternal aunt.


ruth fielding
Although the settings of these thirty books seemed like ancient history (published 1913-1934), I loved kind-hearted, curious, brave, adventuresome Ruth.


When I was somewhat older, I discovered Cherry Ames: Student Nurse.


cherry ames books
The medical aspects of this series (27 books) fascinated me. But more important was the heroine, whose kind heart led her into dangerous situations that her sharp wits got her out of. I gave my Cherry Ames books to my older granddaughter a few years ago, but alas, her interests are more in the fantasy/horror genre. Oh, well.


As you may have gathered by now, for me, there is no expiration date on adventure.


west with the night
Beryl Markham’s incredible book is set in the earliest years of flight, and being a bush pilot in Africa. The writing is lyrical, the scenes compelling.


When I was involved in a vicarious love affair with Alaska (I’ve never been there), I read book after book set there, and through a rather circuitous route, came across Woodswoman.
woodswoman anne lebastille
When one thinks New York, the first thing to come to mind is not wilderness. And yet the North Country has winters suitable for training military for the Arctic, and parts of the Adirondacks truly are isolated—and virtually inaccessible in winter. Anne LaBastille living alone, frozen in for the winter, with a jerry-rigged outdoor shower, is plenty adventurous.


My longest term adventure was a two-week float-and-paddle rafting trip down the Colorado River. I mostly floated. Side-canyon hikes were strenuous and attending to one’s bodily needs was a challenge. But the most exciting part was the white-water rapids. I went bow-riding over thirty-foot drops! (Bow-riding is sitting on the front of the raft, holding onto a rope.)
writing down the river
So it’s no wonder I love Writing Down the River. Over one summer, fifteen talented women writers rafted down the Colorado. Their contributions to this book reflect their successes and failures, joys and fears. They take you there! (And, BTW, the photographs are gorgeous.)


Bottom line: Find your adventure—personal or vicarious—and pursue it.

A Creative Nonfiction Writer You Should Know

creative nonfiction writer know linda bourassa
Once upon a time, I worked with Dr. Joyce Dyer at Hiram College. We were just solidifying the writing program and making it more prominent within the curriculum. Joyce was a great choice to head those efforts, for she is a stellar colleague and widely admired teacher. But that’s not why I am writing about her today.


Joyce Dyer has a flair for drawing on her own life and making it bigger—relevant, compelling reading.
tangled wood alzheimers journey joyce dyer
In a Tangled Wood: An Alzheimer’s Journey is a rare, powerful memoir of a mother and daughter in the world of Alzheimer’s. It is humorous, painful, and wise. Joyce doesn’t shy away from the struggle, but this book contains a surprising wealth of joy as well.
Sociology of time and place permeate two of her books. The titles say it all: Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood and Gum-Dipped: A Daughter Remembers Rubber Town. The former, in particular, is a case study in writing memoir based on the earliest years of one’s life. How can those memories be recovered? Those times revisited? Anyone interested in writing—or simply reading—memoir should check out these books.


The keen eye and talent for the telling detail that characterize her own work enabled her to edit two volumes of essays that are prime reading for anyone interested in writing, women’s writing, women’s history, or life in general!


bloodroot joyce dyer
Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers is particularly poignant for me. Being firmly rooted in the hills of eastern Kentucky and southeastern Ohio, Appalachian voices and places permeate many of my short stories and one (as yet unpublished) novel.
curlers chainsaws women their machines
And now I have the pleasure of starting From Curlers to Chainsaws: Women and Their Machines. Published just last year, this is a new acquisition, an anthology I expect to enjoy reading and to shelve for reference. Bill Roorbach’s cover comment says it beautifully: “From Curlers to Chainsaws makes stops along the way to visit prosthetics, lawnmowers, typewriters, vibrators, washing machines, and on and on, from traditional women’s gear to equipment we’re all using now, praise be… a book of women’s voices so clear and diverse and funny and heartbreakingly individual that you hurry from one to the next…” I can hardly wait!

Airport Reading

I just returned from family time in Colorado, with lots of airport hours each way.

airport hudson store

And as is the case with airports everywhere, there was a Hudson’s for last-minute purchases at exorbitant prices, with prominent displays of bestsellers. Oh, to be Patterson or Sedaris!

Who buys a big heavy book at an airport?

anne tyler accidental tourist
[Source: Goodreads]
This made me think of The Accidental Tourist–at least I think that was the book/movie in which the protagonist wrote travel guides for people who hate travel. He advised always traveling with a hardcover book to discourage seat mates from chatting.

But are there many people like that out there?

If so, they must be limited to the planes, because they certainly weren’t in the airports.

In ascending order of frequency, I saw people work reading,

airport reading

magazine reading,

paperback reading,

handmaids tale margaret atwood

and reading on electronic devices.

kindle airport reading

I am in this last group. It’s the perfect way to carry literally hundreds of books in the space and weight of one paperback. DEFINITELY THE WAY TO GO!

kindle interface

There’s a Rule for That!

book of rules

This is a fun read and less than 200 pages. For one thing, it’s humorous. And it’s a scientific fact that laughing is good for your physical and mental health. So, even if you aren’t rule-bound, you might want to be rule-informed.


The authors are concerned with everyday actions which—although neither immoral nor illegal—are generally considered improper. In general, these are rules for getting along well in U.S. society. Readers are encouraged to suggest additions or amendments to


The rules are organized into the following chapters.
DRIVING, should you want to know about the Green Light Honk, singing along with the radio, who controls the dashboard configuration, and similar vital information.


SHOPPING, including the proper direction and speed of pedestrian flow, shopping cart selection and return, seasonal shopping guidelines, and the proper protocol for found money, to name a few.


DINING OUT, besides dress codes and tipping guidelines for awkward situation, includes dining out with coupons, touching hot plates, and offering compliments/complaints—and more!


FOOD, including accommodating vegetarians, the cereal box prize, and the thickness of peanut butter and jelly.


HABITS AND MANNERS: Who doesn’t want to know how to yawn properly, issue an acceptable fart, or notify an individual of bad breath? This is a long chapter.


HOME: Learn how to make a 60-second sofa seat reservation, authorize the use of wind chimes, deal with yard parkers, and more.


BATHROOMS (such a major topic it’s separated from home in general): Look her for advice on locking the bathroom door, looking in a friend’s medicine cabinet, towel folding and display, and public restroom rules for men and for women. (BTW, I, for one, disagree with their guideline for dispensing toilet tissue.)


The remaining chapters of KITCHENS, DRESS, MULTIMEDIA, THE WORKPLACE, AND TRAVEL contain similarly essential and guidance. As I said, it’s a pleasant read. And if you are like me, intentionally flaunting the rules is inherently gratifying!


If you’re a writer, imagine the ideas for creating an unusual obsessive-compulsive character’s behavior. 
theres a rule for that

Bad Writing, Fun Reading

drivel book
Imagine my surprise when I found two of my all-time favorite writers included in a collection of bad writing.
mary roach
Mary Roach, best-selling author of science for public consumption, presents a facsimile of an early Pet Tips column from the San Francisco Examiner. The opening line is “Why not guppies?” and the closing begins with, “Let’s hear it for guppies!” And in between there are actually interesting facts about guppy gestation, birth, and cannibalism—totally overwritten.
amy tan
Ami Tan’s contribution is a 10-line poem titled “A Juggler Named Jake.”  The first stanza lines end with Jake, fake, air, pair, and break. The second stanza endings are Hoodit, to do it, plates, break, and glue it.


This book works on so many levels! First, it reminds the rest of us that once upon a time, occasionally, even the best writers suck—which can be very good for morale!


Then, too, reading bad writing and knowing why it is bad is good for one’s self-esteem.


Finally, it’s full of bite-size reads. With 51 contributors and fewer than 200 pp of text, including photos and section breaks, each entry can be read in a flash.


The pieces are grouped by topic: Totally Professional, Bad Romance, Ill-Advised Confessions, Oddities, Dark Matter, and Terrible Angst—all so bad they’re good!



Writers’ Notebooks


Virtually all writers have heard the advice that they should keep notebooks—books of whatever sort in which one jots down ideas for stories, images, bits of dialogue, whatever might be useful sometime or other. I’m not very good at that. I kept extensive notes when I was writing Nettie’s Books, but mostly it is catch as catch can.


But don’t take me as a model! Better look to Agatha Christie. When Christie died in 1976, at the age of 85, she left behind 73 hand-written private notebooks, including illustrations and two unpublished Poirot stories.


agatha christies secret notebooks
She wrote more than one book a year from the 1920s, all bestsellers. Her notebooks included notes, lists, and stories. Such notebooks give depth to the published works, reveal the originally planned endings, and plots that were rejected.


agatha christie murder in the making
Not surprisingly, such a successful, prolific writer left behind more material than one book could contain. This volume explores Christie’s techniques for surprise and entertainment. John Curran discusses how her plots evolved, presents previously unpublished short stories and chapters edited out of published works, and discusses her final unfinished work.
hawthorne's lost notebook
Keeping a notebook is not a modern idea. Hawthorne’s notebook from 1835-1841 is testimony to that. It is the earliest notebook that Hawthorne is known to have kept, containing more ideas for stories and articles than any other, including facsimiles in his own hand with more readable typescript alongside.


I urge you to read such notebooks. For one thing, they are fascinating reading. But also, you might come across bits that the greats abandoned but which inspire you to new heights.


In any event, consider keeping your own writer’s notebook—or expanding what you’ve already started. As in virtually every case, there are books to help you do that!


novelists notebook

Musings on Number Titles

Every once in a while I come across something that makes me say, “Humph.” And then my thoughts hare off in any number of directions. Such is the case for books that have numbers in the titles.
george orwell 1984
The first book with a number in the title that I recall noticing was George Orwell’s 1984. Surely anyone who hasn’t read it knows about it. It was copyrighted in 1949, and what seemed like a distant future is now the distant past. Still it endures.


Immediately after that, I recalled that Dorothy L. Sayers used number titles in Five Red Herrings and The Nine Tailors.
That led to other mystery writers who have done so, Agatha Christie for one: Five Little Pigs, 4:50 From Paddington, The Big Four, The Third Girl.


And what about Sherlock Holmes? Sure enough, The Five Orange Pips.
sherlock holmes
Even Raymond Chandler had Five Sinister Characters.
five sinister characters raymond chandler
Beyond mysteries, there is creative non-fiction. All sorts of things come to mind in this category. For example, in London 1849, Michael Alpert used the records of the police files and murder trial of Maria and Frederick Manning, along with contemporary journalism and fiction, to recreate ordinary people’s day-to-day life in the London of 1849.


london 1849
Similarly, 1491 and 1493 bring to life the Americas just before and just after Columbus’s famous voyage.
So, there is a whole category of books dealing with a specific year or time frame. For example, Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927.
bill bryson one summer
Of course, annual anthologies must be dated.


poetry anthologies
And then there are books that have numbers in the titles because they have delimited the contents that way.


So what? Nothing, really. All of this is just following my mental ramble on numbers in book titles. It made me think about another aspect of titling books. And I came across a couple of books I still haven’t read, though they’ve been on my shelves for quite some time.


What are your favorite books with numbers in the title?

Read it Already

new yorker june 2017
The June 5 & 12 issue of The New Yorker is fabulous.


It is jam packed with work by well-known writers. Philip Roth wrote the Life and Letters piece, “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names,” and discusses his early influences.


sherman alexie clean cleaner cleanest
This issue includes not one but three fiction stories. Sherman Alexie is one of my favorites, and his “Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest” article is great, though not as off-beat as some of his work. He is joined by Will Mackin and Curtis Sittenfeld.


toni morrison work you do person
There is a whole section titled On The Job. Another of my favorite authors, Toni Morrison, has a very strong piece here: “The Work You Do, the Person You Are.” Others in this section include Jennifer Egan, Richard Ford, Chris Ware, and Akhil Sharma.


This issue includes two poems, by Kaveh Akbar and Tracy K. Smith. The usual book reviews and commentaries on TV and Movies are present as well, of course.


If the cover price of $8.99 seems a bit steep, get thee to the library. And read it already!

Worth the Wait!

elizabeth strout anything is possible
A friend gave me Anything Is Possible for my birthday. At the time, it wasn’t yet published. When it actually arrived, I was reading something else and my husband—a great Strout fan—eagerly enjoyed my present. He just finished, and I interrupted what I was reading and took it up. And as the headline says, it is worth the wait.


This book is another gripping example of linking short stories to form the whole. Remember Olive Kitteridge? It won the Pulizer Prize in 2009, and has since sold over a million copies.
olive kitteridge elizabeth strout
[Source: Amazon]
That was my first exposure to Strout. I love that book. It inspired me to put together a collection of my short stories with a working title of Almost Family. Well, my book is still almost, but in the meantime, Strout wrote The Burgess Boys (among other things).


worth wait elizabeth strout burgess boys
[Source: Goodreads]
Frankly, although well-written as always, I didn’t like The Burgess Boys so much; it’s much darker than Olive Kitteridge. So far, Anything Is Possible is promising a great read.


It starts with Tommy Guptill, who inherited a dairy farm from his father. The barn and house burned down one night, and Tommy is still haunted by nightmares of the trapped cows. Okay, so that sounds pretty dark. But he moves into town and takes a job as a janitor in the local school and… well, I won’t tell you too much about it. No spoiler alerts here.


long homecoming ariel levy
I mentioned recently that The New Yorker of May 1 had an article about Strout by Ariel Levy titled “A Long Homecoming.” The article provides interesting insights about the relationship between the writer and her writing. Her take on Anything Is Possible is “The tone of Strout’s ficton is both cozy and eerie, as comforting and unsettling as a fairy tale.”


I’m taking Anything Is Possible on a road trip this weekend. I’ll check back in when I’ve finished the book!