My Writing Process Blog Tour

I was quite excited when my good friend Ruth Thompson asked me to participate in the "My Writing Process" Blog Tour.  I met Ruth three years ago at my first AROHO (A Room of Her Own) summer writing retreat at Ghost Ranch.  Since that time we have become fast friends, close enough to risk bunking together at the 2013 retreat.  

Since the beginning of this blog tour, I have had a wonderful time reading the wide range of writers' answers to these four questions, especially those of Ruth and other AROHO sisters, Esther Cohen, Tania Pryputniewicz and Marlene Samuels.  What a joy to read each person’s responses and learn more about her.  It is an honor to join their ranks. 

What are you working on right now?

As always, I'm just trying to lay words down on paper.  At the moment I'm working on poems for a memoir. I've been interested in writing a memoir for years.  It's always been one of my favorite genres but I had never thought of tackling one until I took a class that focused on writing what I think of as a hybrid memoir - one composed of poems as well as short vignettes and prose poems.  I've done some research on this and found the term "lyrical memoir" so maybe that's what I can call it.  It had never occurred to me that so many of my poems could be thought of as memoir until starting this project, but when I look at them it makes a lot of sense.  I've just started on this idea, so it feels very young and fragile, but I'm excited by the prospect of nursing this baby along.  It gives me an "assignment" - which is something I enjoy.  I guess it's the teacher in me.  Also, putting it down in black and white – coming out  as it were - makes this work seem more real.  Having announced to the world that I'm doing this means I have to keep going!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
What a question!  I like to just write what comes to me and see what happens.  I’ve never spent a lot of time reflecting on my work in that way, I think because it would open up all my insecurities and let out that big, bad self-critic.  But if I must answer this, then I would say most obviously my work differs from others because it is mine, because it is written in my voice, from my perspective of the world.  No one else can view the world with my eyes.

My writing has been called simple, clear and gritty.  What I think this means is that I use simple language to create poems people can understand.  I think the gritty means I'm not afraid to put down on paper even my most unflattering thoughts and feelings.  And I do think this makes my work different.  I don't want to hide behind elaborate metaphor or imagery.  I want people to understand what I write, to be able to connect with it.  I want to say plainly what I have to say using simple words in the most poetic way I can. For years I agonized over how simple my language is, but then someone sent me this poem by William Stafford:   

I wanted the plums, but I waited.
The sun went down. The fire
went out. With no lights on
I waited. From the night again—
those words: how stupid I was.
And I closed my eyes to listen.
The words all sank down, deep
and rich. I felt their truth
and began to live them. They were mine
to enjoy. Who but a friend
could give so sternly what the sky
feels for everyone but few learn to
cherish? In the dark with the truth
I began the sentence of my life
and found it so simple there was no way
back into qualifying my thoughts
with irony or anything like that.
I went to the fridge and opened it—
sure enough the light was on.
I reached in and got the plums.  

It's become my mantra so whenever I feel insecure about my simplicity, I bring this to mind. 

Another aspect that defines my work is a sense of place.  I believe my nomadic early childhood created a need for me to experience deeply whatever place I am, to observe everything around me to keep the memory safe when it came time to leave.  So much of my work is about place, whether it about places of my childhood or my travels.  That's another thing, travel - I am a passionate traveler and always find something to inspire my writing when I am shaken loose from my everyday life to go experience somewhere new. 

Why do I write what I do?
Why do any of us write what we do? Because we have to!  I write the words that come to me, sometimes in the night, sometimes as I am walking under wide trees or sailing for the first time.  Sometimes the words come on a bus in Turkey or Thailand.  They come when I am cooking with my mother or watching my niece cut flowers.  I write what I write because the world is so beautiful and so terrible that I have to put into words what I see and hear, taste and touch.  I write because of the ache of love or sadness, the joy of a bird's nest outside my door or grief over a friend's death.  I write because the words come demanding I put them to paper.

How does my writing process work?
For years I feared I had no writing process!  I felt like I was just stumbling along and every once and a while a poem would spring out of me rather like Athena from  Zeus' forehead!  Of course that wasn't really true, but I had so much trouble finding a way to meld writing and my other working life together that I spent a great deal of time struggling.  Being a teacher means talking and giving and draining myself each and every day.  While this can be rewarding, it isn't very conducive to coming home and gathering thoughts to put on paper.  

So last year I finally gave in and realized if I was ever going to get any serious, sustained writing done, I would have to overcome my resistance to getting up early.  And since last August I've done that (257 days and counting).  Every morning I get up and perform a little ritual to get me started.  Then I sit down in my chair with a thermos of tea and begin.  I use this time to purge the happenings of the previous day, writing longhand in my journal for as long as it takes for something "writerly" to come up.  I make lists of ideas to work on over the weekend when I have more free time to concentrate.  I dog-ear journal pages that seem promising.  Sometimes I start working on those ideas right away; sometimes I let them stew for a while.  At the end of each journal, I go back through and record any of the ideas still unrealized into a small notebook full of idea “seeds” (a term I got from Tania Pryputniewicz).  Sometimes those seeds sit unplanted for months or years.

I am a big fan of writing to prompts and exercises.  Somehow being given a subject to write on shakes my mind free.  I know many people find exercises scary or boring or confining but I love them.  Maybe that's also why I love to travel so much.  Every day on the road is like one big writing exercise offering up ideas for my pen.

And now it's time to pass the baton to three more talented writers.  

The first person on my list is Lisa Lutwyche.  I met Lisa at the AROHO retreat in 201l and then again in 2013.  She is not only a talented writer but also a wonderful artist and teacher.  I have one of her watercolors hanging over my writing desk.  It is of Chimney Rock in Ghost Ranch, and offers me inspiration everyday.  

Lisa received her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College (in Vermont) in 2013.  She is an Adjunct Professor of English at Cecil College in North East, MD, and is also an instructor in the Fine and Performing Arts department at Cecil.  Poet, playwright, essayist and novelist (at work on two books), her work has been widely published in the US and in the UK.   Her publications include Mad Poets Review, Image and Word, Poppy Fields, Piano Press, Pitkin Review, Falklands War Poetry, Minerva Rising, the cancer poetry project 2, and Fiction Vortex.  She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2000.  Lisa has taught writing workshops at AROHO (A Room of Her Own Foundation, a bi-annual, selective, women's writing retreat at Ghost Ranch in the mountains of New Mexico) in 2011 and in 2013.  She was the recipient of the 2013 AROHO “Shakespeare’s Sister” Fellowship for a one-act play, and has had two short plays produced in Philadelphia.  Lisa’s one-act play, A State of Being, will be produced in Philadelphia in July. 

Lisa has been teaching creative writing (and art) at community arts centers for over twenty years.  She has a BFA in Studio Art, a BA in Art History (from Youngstown State University in Ohio); she attended University of the Arts and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and she spent 28 years in architecture and design.  

A professional artist, Lisa's work has appeared in magazines and galleries for decades; her artwork will appear on the cover of Undoing Winter, a chapbook (Finishing Line Press) by good friend Shannon Connor Winward. Lisa blogs at logophiliaclisa.

Another AROHO sister is Pamela Helberg.  Pam and I met for the first time last summer at Ghost Ranch.  Her incredible humor and positive presence was so invigorating.  I wish I could write with as much verve as she does. 
She received her MA in Creative Writing from Western Washington University where she studied under award-winning novelist Laura Kalpakian. She founded and operated Fremont Place Books in Seattle and taught English composition for many years at Whatcom Community College. Mostly recently she worked in IT before quitting to go back to school for her master's degree in Mental Health Counseling. Her essay “Body Language” appears in Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, Seal Press, 2013.  The mother of two grown daughters, Pam is currently working on her memoir about lesbian parenting in the 1990s and lives with her wife, Nancy, in Bellingham, Washington. She blogs regularly at, most recently as part of the A to Z Challenge. 
And last but not least on my list is someone who I have never met in person!   Juliana Lightle is an "cyber-friend" who I met while taking a online blogging course taught by Tania Pryputniewicz through Story Circle Network.  Even though we haven’t met face to face, I have enjoyed reading Juliana’s wonderful blog.  I hope someday to have the opportunity to actually sit down to one of the wonderful meals she is always describing!
Raised on a family farm in Northwestern Missouri, Juliana became a singer, college administrator, corporate manager, racehorse breeder and trainer, management consultant, educator and author.  Her first poem was published in a statewide anthology when she was in high school.  She holds a Ph.D. in counseling from The Ohio State University and an M.A. in high education administration and B.A in English from the University of Rhode Island.  She currently writes, teaches, sings, and raises horses in the Panhandle of Texas.
She is a member of the board of the Story Circle Network, a group dedicated to women telling their stories.  Juliana blogs at writingontherim.

AROHO Speaks, Writer to Writer: Interview with Marlene Samuels

A Room of Her Own Foundation's Summer 2011 Retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico brought together a group of dynamic women. Now I am honored to be working with a team whose mission is to keep the spirit of that retreat going by conducting interviews, writer to writer. I met Marlene on the bus to Ghost Ranch and then wound up staying in the room next door to her up on the mesa. We also participated in the same small group, Late Bloomers, for women of a certain age. I was surprised that we hit it off so well, since at first glance we might not appear to be friend material. Yet, with the magic of AROHO working in our favor, we have struck up a wonderful friendship. I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce her to you here.

Thinking back to the 2011 AROHO retreat, can you tell us about an idea, exercise or conversation that had either an identifiable impact upon your writing habits or became a finished piece of writing or one in process?

There were so many incredible moments and conversations it’s really tough for me to isolate a single one but what did make a huge impact on me is the passion with which each woman approached her writing. I was moved by the observation that even the most accomplished participants still expressed some self-doubt. To me that was very refreshing!

It’s noteworthy that we all struggle with the importance of being perceived as serious writers. We each struggle to find that space and consistency for our writing but there’s no precise formula. Kate Gale’s comment – that we schedule the various responsibilities in our lives and meet our commitments yet fail to follow suit with our writing - that was especially poignant. All too often, women put others’ needs ahead of their own writing schedules as though somehow writing isn’t a legitimate use of their time.

Bhanu Kapil’s direct questioning of total strangers really influenced my own work. Her method of querying them as the means by which she could pursue her writing project encouraged me to begin a project I’d been stuck on for about two years. Until hearing Bhanu, I’d been unable to muster the nerve to approach strangers. She was a true inspiration as well!

Is there one specific moment or event at the retreat that sparked an insight or shift in how you perceive either your work or yourself as a writer?

Yes, the evening readings altered my self-perception. Reading my work helped me perceive myself more seriously and hence, as a professional writer instead of someone who’s reluctant to say, “I’m a writer,” in response to the question, “What do you do?” Before the retreat I felt like an imposter if I claimed to be a writer. Somehow, it seems that as women, we have a misperception that unless our writing appears on the New York Times bestseller list or in The New Yorker or is reviewed by Oprah, we can’t claim to be writers. It seems most of us struggle with that but - my gut feeling: it’s a much bigger issue for women.

Is there a specific woman writer who inspires/d you? If so, can you tell us something about why?

Tania Pryputniewicz was amazingly inspirational – the mere fact that she committed to attend in the face of her own doubts, that she demonstrated such a unique approach to her poetry, and that she gave such a unique and creative presentation to the entire group inspired me. She discussed the collaborative process, an approach to writing I’ve never really considered. It’s given me a new view into the creative process, almost like a child being given encouragement to draw outside of the lines.

Bridget Birdsall’s one-on-one spiritual consultation with me – something I was really suspicious of but also curious about – was great fun, not to mention that her insights were exceedingly encouraging. Her strength of character and her intuition are also reflected so honestly in her own writing. There are so many others but I’m guessing the space of this interview wouldn’t accommodate my rave reviews.

How would you describe your typical writing day?

I spend a lot of time in approach-avoidance activities, that time wasting stuff, as I try to get organized. When I was in graduate school we used to refer to that as “pencil sharpening”! I have a terrible time actually getting started on the writing process each day because I tend to take care of all my other responsibilities - phone calls, bills, whatever else distracts me. But if I don’t do that first thing then it’s very tough for me to stay focused.

Afternoon seems the best time for me, when I can spend two to four hours writing. I’ve noticed that just in the few weeks since I got home from the retreat, I’m much more committed to my writing time. It feels really good and that in itself is very reinforcing of my writing commitment. I’m certain it’s the result of embracing the concept that I really am a writer and it’s my legitimate real career.

Can you describe for us what you’re currently working on?

I’m actually working on three things, each in a different genre. I’m completing a short story collection that I’ve been working on for years entitled, The Mental Health Poster Child. It began as my memoir but has evolved as a sequel to my mother’s memoir, The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival. After her death I rewrote and edited when Penguin Berkley agreed to publish it. In addition, I’m co-host of a culinary website and its blog, . Both are progressing toward an “ethnographic” sort of cookbook. My third project is a sociology book based upon interviews with baby-boom generation women. That project really draws upon my training as a serious research sociologist but incorporates my more recently honed passion for writing creative nonfiction.

Is there a specific question you’d have liked us to ask and if so, could you answer it?

Actually, yes! The question I’m surprised no one asked – one I personally asked many of women during the retreat, “What influenced you to attend the retreat?”

I’ve never been to a writers’ retreat before, only to writing workshops and conferences -courses at University of Iowa Summer Festival or University of Chicago Writers’ Studio, that sort of thing. I’d followed AROHO for many years; read about the retreats, and vacillated between wanting to apply yet worrying I’d be out of my league. After reading the bios of women who attended – a huge diversity, it was obvious that I needed to attend. I decided that, unlike workshops, what I needed most was emotional and spiritual support for my goals. That’s an often neglected component to being a productive and confident writer. At some point, writers need that kind of support and connectedness with other writers more than they need instruction in the writing process.

Marlene B. Samuels:

I’m an independent research sociologist, writer, and instructor and teach research methodology and sociology. I earned a Ph.D. and M.A. from University of Chicago. My research focuses upon changing American demographics, adoption issues, and currently, decision-making during life transitions. My writing encompasses three genres: sociology, nonfiction, and food.

I co-authored The Seamstress, my mother’s Holocaust memoir, wrote an academic book about career success plus short stories, essays, and food articles. My writing has been published in Lilith Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, University of Iowa Summer Anthology, Story Circle Journal, Long Story Short and others.