Category Archives: Writing Life

Searching for the right agent, the right word, the right phrase and frame of mind.

Scrapbook of Future Past

Since June I’ve been holding on to an article by Martha Beck about creating vision boards. What’s a vision board you ask? It’s a collage of images that have the power to lead the collage-maker to her (or his) destiny. You may jest. Or doubt. But the people who create them, Martha included, swear by them.

How to make a vision board?

1. Cut out pictures of things you love, images that speak to you even if you don’t know why.
2. Paste them on a nice sheet of poster board or other weighty paper.
3. Realize your life’s ambition, or at the least the next step.

Like I said, I’ve been hanging on to the article not so much because I don’t believe in the concept (I’m vastly intrigued), but because every time I thumb through magazines, nothing seems to jump out at me.  Maybe Martha’s magazines are better than mine?  Or her instincts are higher on the woo-woo scale? Or maybe her destiny’s already out there just waiting for her to catch up and mine’s still incubating?

But then something happened last week that made me rethink the whole concept. Rummaging through some old albums, I plucked out the scrapbook I made when I was four. It was a time capsule of everyday items from the 50’s and 60’s. Remember S&H green stamps?  I must have had a field day cutting up the catalog.   I know I chose some images because they reflected the world around me. My mother’s glasses were that deep emerald color of Prell. What color were your mother’s?

Why I chose this next one I have no idea. I was probably attracted to the background color, which 50 years ago was likely a deep robin’s egg blue. The text just goes to show that even with vision boards, some things stay the same.
It reads: “The fight over medical care for the aged will be long and bitter…Here is a piercing article that reveals: •The hidden battle between the “Blues” and commercial companies in the sale of health-insurance policies. •The almost incredible rise in the cost of medical and hospital care. •The medical plight of the high-risk people over 65. •The reasons behind organized medicine’s attack on all attempts to place care for the aged under Social Security. •The views of some experts who have studied the problem….” Those experts are likely dead by now. Wonder what kind of medical care they had?

What amazes me about thumbing through this book is certainly the nostalgia factor: tail fins; carpet sweepers (catalog #34303 in grey and #3703 in red); a TV-Guide ad promoting “Color every day!” of broadcasts of The Jack Paar Show, Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, The Bell Telephone Hour. But the images that attracted me then are the same types that still snare my attention. Who knew that my propensity for collecting swatches of fabric, beautiful gift wrap, and patterns from magazines started when I was a youngster?  

According to Beck, vision boards are tools to set in motion one’s future. She didn’t say anything about connecting with one’s future children. Only those who know my son is an ace ironer and had flannel bedding in this plaid will get the shivers. What on earth could have drawn me to an image that juxtaposed two symbols from my son’s life?

In her article, Beck cautions that once you have created your vision board, put it away and forget about it. “The purpose of a vision board,” she writes, “is to focus your attention — briefly.” The last step in her article instructs readers not to sit back and wait for Destiny to bonk you on the head, but to keep moving and stay alert. When those little miracle-like coincidences happen, pitch in and help them along.

Do vision boards work? I don’t know. But get a load of the image four-year-old me put front and center of her scrapbook, right down to the size nine shoes.

I’m going to get out my stack of magazines and start gathering. Destiny awaits.

Blessed With the GH Seal Again!

Haven’t even been able to see it myself since I’m still out here in Arkansas miles from a Rite-Aid or a Border’s where a magazine stand might be found…but I hear tell from my dear husband holding the fort back home that my essay, “My Clutter Calendar” appears in the August issue of Good Houskeeping magazine. Page 189. I had titled it “Summer Cleaning” but hey, they publish me, they can pick the title.

And what is summer cleaning you ask as opposed to spring cleaning? Read the article.  No….I”ll give you a hint.

Spring cleaning throws open the windows and clears out dust and the wan and tired things you’ve held on to. You’re brimming with sap and energy as you sweep and brush and scour.  But summer cleaning is quieter, more reflective; you retreat to the basement where it’s cool, going through old boxes remembering and culling.  Spring cleaning lets go; summer cleaning holds on. 

Back in November I was in NYC and went up to GH’s wonderful offices in the Hearst Building.  I got a tour of the famed test kitchens and met with two really cool recent college grads: one a bio major, one a chem major. They now work for GH, testing all kinds of gizmos and products. The day  I was there they were brushing great swaths of crimson, carmine, rose, fuchsia and puce (do we get the color scheme?) on a board to test for colorfastness.  Who knew you could get such a job?

GH stands behind any product with their seal.  They’ve been doing this for 125 years.  There’s something really comforting to that kind of integrity in a world where “flip-flop” refers to the perennial speech of our politicians and elected officials, not just summer footwear.

I’m home Sunday.  It’s been a great stay. Met and made new friends, ate well, walked and walked these beautiful green hills. Am coming home with two new children’s stories; two essays (one may appear on AOL) but I’m not counting those eggs, or readers yet. And most satisfying, and natch the longest shot to seeing light of day, about 20,000 words on a second novel. 

So, nu?  What are you waiting for? You’re closer to a Rite-Aid than I am. Go get your copy of the August Good Housekeeping. On your newsstands today!  Enjoy.
 there you have it. Now, go get that Good Housekeeping!

Hie Thee to a Writers’ Colony

Will be scarce for a few weeks now. I am in Eureka Springs, Arkansas of all places, blessed to be a resident at The Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow. Came with much to accomplish: work on a novel; write first drafts of two additional children’s stories that are part of a series I have begun; come up with key words for future promotion of re-issue of This Jewish Life later this year.

Writers’/artists’ colonies abound nation- and worldwide, havens for creative folks to get away and get down to business, graced with stretches of uninterrupted time to devote themselves to projects at hand.

WCDH accepts applications year-round from emerging and established writers, artists and composers. Admissions are on a rolling basis. Formerly a nationally acclaimed B&B run by Ned Shank and his wife, children’s picture book and cookbook author Crescent Dragonwagon, WCDH was established by them in June of 2000 as a writers’ colony. Tragically, Mr. Shank died in a traffic accident in November of that same year. Ms. Dragonwagon (who also happens to be Charlotte Zolotow’s daughter) is no longer associated with the Colony but her spirit and commitment to fresh and good food beautifully prepared, continue to sustain residents.

So I bid you farewell for now. Writers and other creative brethren and sistren, check WCDH out. Others seeking a vacation spot, Eureka Springs has much to offer. Toodleloo!

Jewish Book Fair Seeking Local Authors

The Detroit Jewish Book Fair is seeking submissions by local authors. Who qualifies? A published author (Jewish or not) who is originally from Michigan or is currently living in Michigan and who has written a work of fiction or non-fiction with Jewish content. How’s that for leeway?

Book Fair’s local author event is an opportunity for authors to publicize their book, meet the public and be a part of an organization that celebrates books, their authors and the written word. (Where else to you get that today?)

During November (Jewish Book Month) Jewish Book Fairs are held across the country. Detroit’s is the oldest and with 20,000 + attendees, the largest. You don’t have to be Jewish to love or attend Book Fair. You just have to love books and love to read. Check out your community’s Jewish Book Fair come November. And if you’re an author with a Michigan connection and a book with Jewish content to promote send it tout de suite to Dalia Keene, Book Fair Director, 6600 West Maple Road. West Bloomfield, MI 48322.  

Reading I Love Jewish Faces at Book Fair.

Fellow Sojourners

Sometimes I think writing is akin to devoting one’s life to the sound of one hand clapping. Yes, our characters talk to us; and yes, our imaginations continuously strobe ideas and seeds for fiction and nonfiction our way.

But we also need the camaraderie of fellow writers, compatriots who understand rejection. We need kindred spirits who’ve experienced the writing life’s highs and lows. Who understand the superstitions — applying for grants and residencies and staying silent; applying in threes and then willing ourselves to forget; agonizing over how long to wait before contacting an editor or agent who’s sat on our work for six months. We are loath to offend these faceless arbiters lest we get our work tossed because we are too noodgy.

This is why writing groups are so precious. Writers at any stage can benefit from that cadre of trusted souls who offer criticism honestly but kindly and know how to sandwich necessary comments between praise and encouragement. Anyone involved in the creative life needs a few companions who can commiserate, who can rail with you when the rejections come in and can celebrate you without envy.

This is what the women in my writing group offer one another. We’ve been meeting for nearly four years. Sometimes sporadically as we bend to the demands of raising children, our jobs, ailing spouses and chemo treatments. We are poets, Jane Austen experts, novelists, futurists, essayists, memoirists, travel writers. We are attorneys, farmers, former chefs and journalists. Sharing our visions through our words, we expand one another’s worlds. We hone one another’s prose. Gently, we hope.

It took me a while to find a group that fit. As an inexperienced writer, I wasn’t sure whose criticism to “believe.” I would come home from weekly sessions in a tizzy, wondering whose advice to follow. It took a while to realize I didn’t have to listen to anyone; that I had the right to sift through my fellow writers’ comments and take what I wanted, even if sometimes that meant taking nothing. We keep one another disciplined, loathe to show up empty handed. Yet sometimes we do and that’s OK.

Writing is a tough business. My group softens the path.

If U cn rd ths, U cn b schl brd pres

We interrupt this regularly scheduled blog for a public “hear-this” announcement.

Debra’s essay “Double Identity” appears on page 203 of the April issue of Good Housekeeping. On your newsstands now! Many thanks to the wonderful folks at GH for sharing my work with their loyal readers once again. (If you missed the first time around it was May 2009.)

At a time when so many print magazines are bidding farewell, GH is celebrating its 125th Anniversary. If you’re a subscriber, you know why they’ve lasted. If you’re not familiar with the magazine, give a look. Of all the magazines I read, this one hasn’t lost its heft — symbolic of advertisers’ own seal of approval. So check it out and thanks again to the GH staff for including my work in their pages.

And now we return to our regularly scheduled post.

I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Otis Mathis, as was recently reported in the  Detroit News, “acknowledges that he has difficulty composing a coherent English sentence.” Mathis is the president of the Detroit school board and his difficulties with reading and writing are seen as qualifications for leading the nation’s lowest achieving school district. In her article, reporter Laura Berman quoted a parent who said, “His lack of writing skills is prevalent in the community. If anybody does, he understands the struggles of what it’s like to go through an institution and not be properly prepared.”

Mathis was placed in special education classes in fourth grade because of his difficulties mastering the basics of written English. His college degree was held up for over a decade because he could not complete the English proficiency exam required by Wayne State University at the time. Not until the requirement was dropped in 2007 did Mathis apply for his degree, after his election to the school board. 

I could summon a slew of fitting adjectives to describe this bizarre situation  — ironic, outrageous, pitiful, unbelievable.  Tragic fits, too.  So does heartbreaking. And , in a through-the-looking-glass kind of way, so does understandable. Mathis is shaking things up. People admire him for reasons I won’t challenge, no matter how upended their logic. 

Otis Mathis envisions himself a role model to Detroit’s public school children. “It’s not about what you don’t have,” he said, (meaning, I assume, the ability to write coherently.) “It’s about what you can do.” Mathis has proved he can do a lot. But instead of letting DPS kids off easy,  I hope he can create a parent and school partnership so fourth graders with learning disabilities don’t fall through the cracks. I hope he can transform a school system into graduating students who are proficient in written English and properly prepared in all subjects. Because if Mathis can do that, just think of what DPS students could do then.

Yes, Virginia, there is a room…

After a week of sanding and refinishing we are left with gorgeous floors and pervasive dust. Think Pompeii without the tragedy. It’s everywhere. Every crevice, surface and mullion bar. When I finally tackled my office I started dusting off the books. It wasn’t long before I was dusting off memories, too.

I open Habibi and Yow and I’m four once again. My sisters hadn’t been born yet and there was all the time in the world for my mother to read me stories about Habibi and his mischievous dog Yow as they celebrated Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, built a sukkah and hunted for the afikomen at Passover. The ingenious Animal Lore and Disorder is from a decidedly simpler time. Its split pages kept me busy for weeks on end creating all sorts of fantastical creatures like the Ligaroo or the Dotah. The paperback poetry book my grandfather gave me lost its back cover long ago. But the poems have preserved his voice, deep and rich, tinged with the South and love for me as he read over and over the poem about the little boy with the hole in his “pottet.”

There are books from the days of reading to Elliot and Emma: The Tub People and The Ox Cart Man, Caps for Sale and Joyful Noise — a wonderful book of poems for two voices by Paul Fleischman. “We don’t live in meadows…cricket, cricket…or in groves….” takes me back to the nights of feet pajamas and bath-damp hair. The nights of one more story and one more kiss.

There are the shelves of writing books and Jewish books, favorite novels and biographies, a collection of quote books and James Lipton’s An Exaltation of Larks without which I would have never known that a group of auction bidders was called a nod and gathering of cubists was called a block.  On the trunk are the alphabet books I began collecting a few years ago with the hopes of sharing them with grandchildren one day.

There are the tchotchkes and gifts, too: a clock my son made for me in metalsmithing, my daughter’s woodcut from her printmaking class. There’s the ivory samurai that sat on my grandmother’s dresser and the little buddha dish into which I’ve placed two stems of dates from Israel. The seashell shaped like an ear is from a writing workshop led by a wonderful teacher. Where the tiny pink rubber pig came from I have no idea but I’ve saved it as I have my bronzed baby shoe that now holds my paper clips.

What writer doesn’t have her toys, the sensory distractors that delight during those doldrums when words disappear? What did I want for my 40th birthday my sisters asked.  A kaledescope I told them and they found me a beauty. Its incised brass tube is cool in my hand; the double disks of  glass bits and threads create endless patterns of visual swoon. Deep down I’m still the kid who sat for hours with a book that let me create a dachstoise and a rhinomel.                                                                      

I bought the glass pomegranate for its contradiction. It could be a paperweight but it’s actually a rattle.  For adults. A little bead or stone inside the pomegranate bounces off its glass walls when I shake it. I love the defiance of it. How can the stone not break the glass? But it doesn’t. And so I shake away.

To my right, beside my file folders is a painting of a woman in shadow. Did the artist tire of the image, thus leaving the nude unfinished? Or is the painting finished as is, the woman emerging from the shadows of the artist’s brushes? She reminds me that we are all works in progress. Beyond her are photos of my family past and present.

A room of one’s own is so many things — sanctuary, work space, validation. It is a place to dream, to struggle, to create.  It is the place where the selves of who we were and who we are hover all around us, holding hands.