I’ve accepted that a Nobel Prize, a Pulitzer—even a New York Times bestseller—just isn’t in my future.
Fortunately, I am not writing to put food on the table; I write to feed my soul.
That said, here goes.
The Upside: There’s So Much Of It!
Good conversation: I’ve never met a boring writer. Some have boring spouses—or occasionally obnoxious ones—but writers themselves are consistently good company.
Because writers tend to turn up in the same places, over time we get to know each other, and often acquaintances turn into friends.
They’re interesting and varied, and generally we are like-minded.
Then, too, fellow writers are likely to listen actively when I talk about writing.
Writers value my short story strengths. I’ve published more than 60 short works in literary journals and anthologies. Writers celebrate these short story publications! They get what it means. Other friends, even family, are likely to offer a polite, “That’s nice,” or, “Congratulations,” without asking so much as the title of the work or the publication! For the general public, “writer” means novels, or other books.
Simultaneously, other writers commiserate with my struggles, setbacks, rejections, etc.
Writing boosts my emotional intelligence: motivation, empathy, self-regulation, self-awareness, and social skills.
I’m organized, think clearly, and process things efficiently and analytically. This includes being able to handle negative events/feelings. No, I can’t measure how much difference writing makes for me personally, but psychological research says that these things are true of writers overall.
In general, writing keeps my brain alive. Focusing only on gardening, cooking, TV, hobbies, etc., doesn’t challenge me to think, reason, or explore.
I’m a researcher by inclination and professional training, so I make sure the facts in my fiction are right. In the process, I’m always learning.
These are self-assessments. Such results would not guaranteed for others!
Staves off depression by spending time on something I believe is worth doing
Precludes boredom because the options are endless
Boosts self-esteem by getting positive responses from peers and journal editors
I’m very happy and content! Maybe I’m just lucky, but research indicates that being an author is one of the happiest careers in the U.S.
The Downside: There Isn’t Much For Me
Since I started writing, I’ve become a more critical reader. Now I notice that New York Times bestselling author Mary Burton gives nearly all her women characters ponytails and that her favorite adjective is “simple.” Prolific writer L. T. Ryan consistently uses “sat” when it should be “set.” Such things don’t keep me from enjoying these particular authors’ work, but I do notice.
I’m especially irritated by the language burps of “professionals”: newscasters, columnists, politicians… Oh, sigh.
My Writing Habits
I’m a writing class/workshop junkie! I’m perennially enrolled. Why?
Creative stimulation, taking me places I wouldn’t have gone otherwise
Structure, deadlines, and accountability make me actually produce
Appreciation for the work of others, well-published and/or fellow students
I’ve been in critique groups for years. Whereas classes and workshops are great for generating new ideas, they aren’t usually conducive to developing those ideas, or polishing them for submission.
I learn what’s working (or not)
I find out whether what is on the page is what I intended
I’ve heard horror stories about the destruction wrought by competitive writing groups. Fortunately, I’ve avoided those. The criticism is intended to make the work better, not to belittle me
I submit something at least every two months If I get more than six per year, great, but six is the minimum.
Although I do write brief diary entries daily, my creative writing is most, not all, days.
Reading fees of any sort turn me off. Therefore, contests do not draw me in. For one thing, there are almost always submission fees. Also, I’m content if my writing is “good enough” for publication. It doesn’t have to be “the best.”
I listen for fresh language. For example, I recently came across a FaceBook post that included “the I.Q. of a crayon.”
FYI, my writing time is the late hours of the night, wee hours of the morning. And my writing area is a shambles.
BOTTOM LINE: I’m convinced writing is good for me. I’ll keep on keeping on!
This summer, I noticed a volunteer growing among my hellebores. I identified it as Carolina Horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), a member of the nightshade family. It looks like a nettle because of the small spines on the stems and leaves. Fortunately, I was able to dig it out before it matured, but what I read said it blooms from April to October and that the crushed leaves smell like potatoes. It produces deceptively pretty, little, white flowers.
Horsenettle grows in pastures, along roadsides, in disturbed areas, and other types of “waste” ground. It can tolerate both wet and dry conditions—i.e., practically anywhere. Symptoms of horsenettle poisoning include nausea, vomiting, excess salivation, drowsiness, diarrhea, and weakness. Although horsenettle poisoning is seldom fatal, ingesting the fruit can cause abdominal pain, circulatory and respiratory depression, and occasionally death. Fatalities are most common among children.
Horsenettle produces fruits that look like very small tomatoes, starting out green and turning yellow. In order of toxicity: unripe berries, ripe berries, leaves, stems. Toxicity is stronger in autumn. So, I wondered: what other plants, growing innocently in gardens, might meet the needs of poisoners. I just happen to have on my shelf the perfect reference for this subject—Book of Poisons: A Guide for Writers. It is part of the Howdunit series, books providing technical information for writers of crime and mystery books. According to Stevens and Bannon, plants are the source most accessible to the average poisoner.
The authors organized plants into groups:
Plants that are quickly fatal, like foxglove
Plants that can be mistaken for edible, like castor bean
Plants eaten by animals whose meat is then poisonous for humans, like laurel
Plants that are edible in small quantities, like ackee berry
Plants that have certain edible parts, like rhubarb
Plants that are edible during certain times of the year, like mandrake
Plants used for medicinal purposes, such as ergot
Plants that flower, like rhododendron or azalea
Stevens and Bannon rated all of the poisons for toxicity—not just the plant-based ones—according to the amount required to kill a person. Weight and metabolism vary, and the authors provide a means of extrapolating the fatal dosage for a person of any size or circumstance. Here’s a quick and dirty list for writers, based on a vaguely average 150 pound human being:
A taste, less than 7 drops
Between 7 drops and 1 teaspoon
Between 1 teaspoon and 1 ounce
Between 1 ounce and l pint or pound
Between 1 pint and l quart
More than 1 quart or 2.2 pounds
Given that my poison garden is in Virginia, I looked for poisonous plants of Virginia, and found that Virginia Tech has compiled such a list. (FYI: if your poison garden is elsewhere, search online for an equivalent collection for your area. For example, I know there are such lists for West Virginia and Ohio, as well as guides for all states and all regions.) So here, in alphabetical order, are the plants in my poison garden. I’ve omitted plant descriptions and locations in favor of what part(s) of the pant are toxic and the symptoms. Greater detail is readily available if one of these little beauties appeals to you.
American False-hellebore (Veratrum viride), aka Indian Poke, has a toxicity of 5. All parts of the plant are poisonous and potentially fatal when ingested by humans or livestock. Don’t touch or handle any of it with bare hands, because the toxic compounds can be absorbed through the skin. Symptoms of False Hellebore poisoning include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness, seizures, decreased blood pressure, slowed heart rate, heart arrhythmia, coma and, potentially, death. On the other hand,Veratrum viride can have medicinal uses as pain reliever, heart sedative, and to lower blood pressure.
Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) is not a native plant, but it has been found in isolated parts of Virginia as well as Maryland, North Carolina, and Washington, DC. Although not typically poisonous, it’s very dangerous to humans and shouldn’t be touched at all. The sap is strongly toxic for humans, resulting in serious skin reactions after exposure to sunlight. Eventually, this skin rash changes to blisters that look like burn wounds. A red-purple scar may develop that can last years. Exposure of the eyes to plant juice may lead to blindness.
Jimson-weed (Datura stramonium), aka Jamestown weed, has a toxicity rating of 6. Although also not native to Virginia, it grows everywhere: in pastures, fields, waste areas, and in sand and gravel bars near streams. All parts are poisonous. Sometimes seeds are ingested directly, or plant parts brewed brewed into tea. Exposure often results in hospitalization. In small doses, it is hallucinogenic. Besides hallucinations, symptoms include headache, delirium, agitation, large pupils, constipation, urinary retention, elevated pulse, hypertension, and fever. Stevens and Bannon said, “Accidental poisoning is most often caused by the seeds […] Both adults and children have been fatally poisoned by tea brewed from the leaves or seeds of this plant.”
Mayapple (Podophyllium peltatum) aka Wild Mandrake, is most likely found in forests—but it’s in my poison garden, and I’ll include it! Leaves, roots, stems, seeds, and unripe fruit are toxic. Symptoms when ingested include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, followed by organ failure, coma, and potentially death days later. Ripe fruit is edible, but mistakenly eaten not-quite-ripe fruit leads to all of the above.
Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) is a member of the carrot family… but grows 6 to 10 feet tall! It has a toxicity rating of 6. It’s an invasive non-native. All parts are extremely poisonous, the blooms emit a foul odor, and the leaves acts like nicotine. Juice from Poison Hemlock can cause severe skin irritation. Internal poisoning often occurs after a victim confuses the root with wild parsnips, the leaves with parsley, or the seeds with anise. Hemlock tastes similar to lettuce. Whistles made from the hollow stems have been reported to lead to death in children. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, coughing, wheezing, watery eyes, salivation, sweating, difficulty seeing, weakness, dizziness, trembling, seizures, paralysis, changes in pulse rate, coma, and potentially death.
Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), aka Pokesalad, is found pretty much everywhere: fields, fencerows, roadsides, crop fields, and forest edges. It has a toxicity rating of 4. All parts of the plant are seriously poisonous. The juice can be absorbed through the skin, causing itchy skin and/or painful rash. Symptoms of ingestion include nausea, severe vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, burning sensation in the mouth, visual impairment, weakened respiration and pulse. Dehydration caused by these symptoms can be severe enough to lead to convulsions and death. People have tried to cook the leaves with spring greens, but the result was still poisonous even with multiple changes of water.
Virginia-creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a native plant that grows virtually everywhere. All parts of the plant are toxic to humans and other mammals. Ingestion causes intense mouth pain, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Swelling of the mouth and throat may cause swollen airways and asphyxiation.
Water-hemlock (Cicuta maculata), aka Spotted cowbane, is among the most toxic native plants in Virginia and has a toxicity rating of 6—and it’s one of the most gruesome poisons. It’s common near water, swamps, and wet seepage areas. All parts of the plant are highly toxic to humans, especially the roots. Symptoms include severe stomach pain, pupil dilation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, difficult breathing, violent convulsions, and swelling of the mouth. Grand Mal seizures can begin soon after ingestion and prove non-responsive to regular seizure medications. People can asphyxiate on their own vomit or shred their tongues with their teeth because they cannot open their jaws. Death typically follows within fifteen minutes to eight hours after ingestion.
Other plants in my poison garden:
Rhododendron — toxicity 6
Lily of the Valley — toxicity 6
Oleander — toxicity 6
Yew — toxicity 6
Daphne — toxicity 5
Mountain Laurel — toxicity 5
Rhubarb aka Pie plant — toxicity 4
Foxglove — toxicity 6
CAUTION! DANGER, DANGER, DANGER! Many of these plants are beautiful and/or sweet-smelling. Pay close attention when someone—especially a child—visits your poison garden.
Bottom line for writers: death is as close as your own backyard—or roadside—or pasture—or woods. . .
My tai chi teacher is fond of saying that in terms of ill effects on health, sitting is the new smoking. She urges never sitting still for more than ten minutes at a time. Treadmill desks and Hemingway-style standing notwithstanding, most writers spend a lot of time sitting. So, here follows my humble suggestions about how writers can keep moving during their work days. And I’ll start with my personal favorite, stay flexible.
No one can produce the Great American Novel with carpal tunnel syndrome. One possibility is to use all your digits. If that doesn’t particularly work for you, consider these alternatives to keep typing—or, as many say today, “keyboarding.”
Then there is the pencil twirl, which is good for dexterity and also good as a party trick. Keep an array of pencils and pens around and when you’re on the phone or whatever, weave a pencil (or pen) through the fingers of one hand, first one direction and then the other.
Hand function is crucial, but flexibility is truly a full-body need. Try these moves.
Of course, it’s also important to jiggle one’s brain occasionally. Whenever you feel especially groggy or frustrated, try banging your head on the desk/keyboard.
Which reminds me, use scrap paper to improve eye-hand coordination. Crumple all those discarded draft pages into paper basketballs and lob them toward the wastebasket—if you can find it.
Attend to heart health with aerobic walking. The ideal might be a 60 minute walk every day. But if that isn’t possible, consider 360 10-second walks around your desk chair, breathing heavily.
Flexibility and breathing are crucial, but so is strength. If lifting your coffee cup (or whatever beverage) isn’t doing it for you, consider these moves.
And yes, ladies, one can do the squats in pencil skirts: just jut your butt out and keep your knees behind your toes, while keeping your back flat.
There’s much evidence that exercise goes better with companions. Consider bringing exercise into your next critique group meeting.
But More Seriously…
Many successful writers urge physical activity as necessary for writers. Everyone knows about Sue Grafton and Stephen King.
“The writer must have a good imagination to begin with, but the imagination has to be muscular, which means it must be exercised in a disciplined way, day in and day out, by writing, failing, succeeding and revising.”
― Stephen King
But testimonials are out there, all over the place. Here is a list of writers who have publicly endorsed physical exercise. Look them up for details.
New York Times bestselling author of ten books, also an award-winning professor at The New School and NYU.
Wolf has had the #1 best-selling book on Amazon and was ranked #2 for all historical romance authors.
Meidav won the Kafka Award for Best Novel by an American Woman and the Fiction Prize for writers under 40. She teaches at U. Mass Amherst MFA program.
Her novel The Fallback Plan made the “highbrow brilliant” quadrant in New York magazine’s approval matrix. She’s published three books.
Author of 17 books, The Mango Bride won the Philippine counterpart of the Pulitzer Prize as well as Best Contemporary Fiction at the 2014 San Diego Book Awards.
Bottom line: Consider the collective wisdom of many productive writers and figure out how to get more active! Here are two places to get started.
Today I’ll start with the bottom line: every eligible voter should exercise that right, duty, and privilege! In a democracy, voting is the strongest way for political representatives to know the will of the citizens.
This chart is difficult to read, but it essentially says that even now, the president is elected by less than 45% of the U.S. population. Granted, some people are too young to vote, or ineligible for other reasons. But even in the best years, only about 60% of eligible voters did so.
When I say voting is a privilege, I say so in light of the history of voting rights in the United States. Here is a list of the major milestones.
1789: The Constitution granted states the power to set voting requirements. Generally, states limited the right to vote to property-owning or tax-paying white males, approximately 6% of the population.
1790: The Naturalization Act of 1790 allowed white men born outside the U. S. to become citizens with the right to vote.
1792-1838: Free black males lost the right to vote in several Northern states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
1792-1856: Abolition of property qualifications for white men, from Kentucky in 1792 to North Carolina in 1856, the periods of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy. However, tax-paying qualifications remained in five states as late as 1860 (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and North Carolina). They remained in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island until the 20th century.
1868: Citizenship was guaranteed to all persons born or naturalized in the United States by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, setting the stage for future expansions of voting rights.
1870: Non-white men and freed male slaves were guaranteed the right to vote by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Disenfranchisement after the Reconstruction Era began soon after. Southern states suppressed the voting of black and poor white voters through Jim Crow Laws. During this period, the Supreme Court generally upheld state efforts to discriminate against racial minorities; only in the 20th century were such laws ruled unconstitutional. Black males in the Northern states could vote, but the majority of African Americans lived in the South.
1887: By the Dawes Act, citizenship was granted to Native Americans who were willing to disassociate themselves from their tribe, making them technically eligible to vote.
1913: The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution gave voters the right to elect Senators, rather than state legislatures doing so.
1920: The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote. The same restrictions that hindered voting for poor or non-white men also applied to poor or non-white women.
Women have had the right to vote for less than one hundred years. Many polls reveal gender gaps on issues and candidates. Don’t waste this opportunity to express your values!
1924: All Native Americans were granted citizenship and the right to vote, regardless of tribal affiliation. By that time, approximately two thirds of Native Americans were already citizens.
1943: Chinese immigrants were given the right to citizenship and to voting by the Magnuson Act.
1961: Residents of Washington, D.C. were granted the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections by the Twenty-Third Amendment to the Constitution.
1964: The Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution prohibited poll taxes from being used as a condition for voting in federal elections.
1965: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 protected voter registration and voting for racial minorities. This was later applied to language minorities. This has been applied to correcting discriminatory election systems and districting. (Updated in 1975.)
1966: The Supreme Court prohibited tax payment and wealth requirements for voting in state elections.
1971: The Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution granted the right to vote to those aged 18 through 21. This was in response to Vietnam War protests, which argued that soldiers who were old enough to fight for their country (and maybe die) should have the right to vote.
I’ve read that this age group is the least likely to vote. Some put the figure at 20%.
1986: U.S. Military and Uniformed Services, Merchant Marines, and other citizens overseas, living on bases in the U.S., abroad, or aboard ships were granted the right to vote in the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.
2013: The Supreme Court (in a 5/4 vote) struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. The core of the winning argument was that racial minorities no longer continued to face barriers to voting because “Our country has changed” (Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.). The majority determined that specifying states that must receive clearance from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington before they changed voting procedures, moving polling places, or redrawing electoral districts was unconstitutional.
This year, major outcries have arisen about everything from ID requirements to relocation of polling places that have a disproportionate effect on minorities. For example, suppression of African American votes in Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, and Texas; Hispanics in Kansas; and Native Americans in North Dakota. Make the effort to vote in spite of obstacles!
Writers, like everyone else, can—and often do—use wait-time to read, check Facebook, etc. But writers have so many more options!
Things to do during any wait
Practice describing: Choose any one person and describe him/her in detail, and as vividly as possible. For the most benefit of this practice, try describing both stand-out characters and those who look as ordinary as possible.
Practice judging a book by its cover: Which is to say, consider another waiting person and, on the basis of what s/he is wearing, imagine socio-economic class, education, type of job, personality, and anything else that comes to mind.
Practice noticing non-verbals and extrapolating from them: If a man is fidgeting, repeatedly checking the time, etc., maybe his marriage is precarious, and he’s imagining confronting his wife, saying, “I swear! I was standing in the post office line the entire time!”
How are the waiters behaving? Is there generally patience, politeness, and/or acceptance? Grumbling, swearing, people leaving? What might contribute to the ambiance? Size of community? Geography? (E.g., Richmond vs. New York City.) Consider what would happen if someone behaved differently from the majority.
Practice disrupting the status quo: Do something unexpected, even if minor, and observe the responses around you. For example, sway from side to side, pat the top of your head, march in place, etc., and keep doing it. Don’t make eye contact—and don’t laugh!
Practice introspection: When stuck with a long wait—longer than expected—how are you feeling? Check your visceral reactions: breathing, muscle tension, heart rate, stomach. Are you relaxed, tense, bored, impatient, or something else? What are your inclinations—stay, leave, sigh audibly, complain loudly, try to jump the line, seek redress with someone who seems to be a gatekeeper, or something else? Why do you act on those inclinations—or not?
Things to do while waiting when noise isn’t an issue
Listen to ring tones: Try to identify them, or at least get the rhythm, and extrapolate from that their personality.
Practice eavesdropping—and spin a story from it: A woman says, “I noticed that your wife is wearing orthopedic boots.” Man says, “She has diabetes, and doesn’t have any toes on her left foot. She doesn’t have a big toe on her right foot. The boots are so she can try to balance.” Listen to mobile phone conversations and proceed as above.
Incite responses: This is in line with disrupting the status quo. Say something outrageous! You can say it to someone else in line or you can pretend to have a mobile call and let others in the line “overhear” you saying something outrageous. For example, “I’ve had sex with thirteen men—and, no, I’m not promiscuous!”
Opportunities in specific places
Airports: Where is s/he going? Why? What’s in his/her carry-on? Traveling coach or first class? Why was s/he pulled aside for further security screening? Is this person traveling alone or not? Is it a family? Business colleagues? Lovers?
Doctor’s/dentist’s office: What’s his/her condition? Is it terminal? Does that bald person have cancer? Does that person have reason to be nervous or is it just “white coat syndrome”? If the former, what reasons? If the latter, what is the origin?
Grocery store: Check out the carts around you. Is this person shopping for one or a family? Is this a health-food nut or a snack food junkie? Omnivore or vegan? What does it say if the other shopper brought bags, asks for paper, or goes plastic?
BOTTOM LINE: Use your waits to build your writing arsenal!
Recently I—along with my plants—have been suffering from the heat. They wilt and wither. I feel lethargic and grumpy. I’m not alone in this. From back in the day when I taught psychology, I’m well aware that weather affects mood and behavior. Indeed, hot summer months are associated with lower mood, and humidity tends to make people more tired and irritable.
And it occurs to me, writers might like to know the effects of weather that have been scientifically studied.
Perhaps one of the best known effects is that people like sunshine—but only if you are able to get out in it. Otherwise, moods likely plummet for people stuck indoors.
Pleasant spring weather is associated with higher mood, better memory, and other good cognitive functions.
Drivers are more likely to pick up hitchhikers on sunny days than on cloudy days.
On sunny days people are more likely to help each other.
And Minnesotans tip more generously in restaurants when it’s sunny.
College applicants’ non-academic attributes are weighted more heavily on sunny days.
On sunny days, a woman is likely to give her phone number to an attractive stranger 22% of the time (compared to 14% of the time on cloudy days).
People spend more money when it’s sunny.
Being outside during pleasant weather can improve memory and boost creativity.
CLOUDS AND RAIN
On the good side, people recall up to seven times more objects when quizzed on cloudy days compared to sunny ones.
College applicants’ academic attributes are weighted more heavily on cloudy days. I love the title of this study: Clouds Make Nerds Look Good.
On the bad side, as noted above, hitchhikers fare worse on cloudy days.
On rainy days, people feel less satisfied with their lives.
Changes in barometric pressure can affect mood and cause headaches.
Rain can cause you to eat more, especially carbs.
Rain can cause pain. Because of the reduction in atmospheric pressure there is an increase in stiffness and a reduction in mobility. Yes, Granny’s knees predicting the weather is supported by science.
Some studies have found a relationship between low barometric pressure and suicide.
The ideal temperature for helping is 68 degrees F. The more the temperature goes above or below that, the lower the rates of helping.
Crime rates rise with temperature. During the summer, rates for serious violent crimes, household burglary, and household property damage are significantly higher.
Rates of aggression—everything from murders and riots to horn-honking—are higher in hotter years, months, days, and times of day.
Baseball pitchers are more likely to hit batters on hot days.
Journalists tend to use more negative words on hotter days.
Cold temperatures can lead to physical lethargy (much like too much heat).
Lack of sufficient sunshine in winter causes some people to become depressed, a syndrome known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It can be treated with light therapy. SAD is sometimes referred to as winter depression. It typically affects people from October through April.
Seasonal depression may be mediated by loss of vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin). People suffering anxiety and depression are more likely to have vitamin D deficiency, and seniors with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more likely to be depressed than those with normal levels.
Cold temperatures: see above.
The effects of weather on mood are a combination of biological, psychological, and social. If you need to know why weather is causing your characters to act in specific ways, you can delve into that online!
TWO: I will set a realistic daily goal. It can be minutes, hours, word count, or pages, so long as it is quantifiable. (One needs to be clear on whether the goal was met.) And keep it realistic. (Why set up for failure?)
THREE: I will create a writing diary/calendar and record my writing achievement every day. I’ll star every day I meet or exceeded my goal.
FOUR: I will reward myself. I will treat myself whenever I accumulate X-number of stars.
FIVE: I will read at least one book about the craft of writing.
SIX: I will read at least one book on self-editing.
SEVEN: I will attend at least one writing conference, book festival, or class.
EIGHT: I will read at least one book in my genre with a conscientiousness of how I would have done it differently.
NINE: I will be supportive of writers. This includes not beating up on them or myself!