I’ve been writing one book in particular since about 2014. First, it served as my MFA Nonfiction thesis. When it was accepted by the committee, I chose to embargo its academic publication. I wanted to give this little book a chance to be published before it became fodder for future academics and scholars. But the question of who would publish it grew tough. Who would read a story about a woman in the early twentieth century who becomes a medium for interesting voices, through automatic writing? A woman who, unlike Sarah Winchester, did not become famous. And unlike Jane Roberts or Sylvia Browne, did not publish her writings for a commercial audience. My book seemed to be too much of a family story to be literature, but too lyrical to be a straight-up biography.
While I hunted for publishers and agents, the entire book had to be overhauled anyway – the academic tones rinsed out, and new transitions inserted. Pieces I loved all the way to the last draft had to be ruthlessly axed, while other items from an early draft marched back in.
From 2017 through early 2020, I alternately cast it down and took it back up. I hated myself when I wasn’t writing, a common writer trait. I began to bargain with my Higher Power. ‘Show me what to do,” I demanded. “Make it really obvious!” The first break in the mist was an email from my uncle, saying he’d help me publish the book for the family. I began to realize that this was an offer of real freedom – I would not have to change the book to fit the agenda or category for an agent or a publisher.
Then the pandemic arrived, changing my daily routines -- no more commute, no movies, no restaurants, no gatherings. Many people talk about how they are cleaning their closets and gardening during this COVID era. I don’t have a garden and in 2020, most of my worldly goods were in storage. So I came back to the book. I kept coming back until one day, it felt done.
Then a good friend decided to self-publish using an online behemoth you all know – and she told me how easy and straightforward the process was. She was right! Within two weeks I had a cover design, a formatted interior and an ISBN number. Thanks to my uncle, I was able to order about 50 copies of that little book and gift them to family members. Sending all these good people a book that I wrote about channeling spirits through automatic writing was a bit like going to a big reunion and taking my clothes off. I wanted to go into hiding for a few months until I felt safe again.
But I finished the book, and I made it the very best I could. The response has been warm and positive. Writing the book grew me as a writer and as a historian, and as a member of my communities. And I am pleased to realize that, whatever good readers can find in it, by bringing their own spacious minds to interact with the page, that is a little bit of good that would not otherwise have existed in the world. That scrap of good is my legacy.
Helen and the Masters: A Portrait of a California Mystic is available as a paperback on Amazon.
Some couples just want to say “I do.” Others are happy to simply repeat the traditional, “For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” And still others want to write their own vows.
There is no wrong way or right decision; only what is most comfortable for you. If speaking aloud during your wedding is an unwanted load of pressure on an already full day, don’t do it.
On the other hand, if you are comfortable reading a vow you’ve written beforehand, here is a sweet template to get you started. Once you’re started, feel free to throw out the template.
Lisa’s throwaway template:
(Name), I love you because. . . .
I love your . . .
I love that you . . .
And how you make me . . .
I promise that . . . .
And I promise to . . . .
A few more thoughts:
At a minimum, try to write five or seven lines.. At maximum, anything longer than a page is a little rough on your guests.
If you are a funny person, it’s OK to add a touch of humor. If you have gone through very difficult circumstances with your beloved, you can mention this, but overall, try to keep everything in the vows positive and upbeat.
Some couples feel better if they know what each other will say, so they write or review their vows together. Others prefer to keep them secret from each other until the ceremony. If you choose the latter, try to let each other know how long your vow will be for a better balance.
It’s best to jot them down. Trying to memorize them adds another element of risk, which might keep you from being fully present during your wedding ceremony.
Finally, don't be afraid to try writing your vows. If they come from your heart, there is no wrong way to write them!
I've been writing my Masters' thesis, a slim biography about my maternal great-grandmother, for three years. At first the book was mostly in my head as I struggled with structure and voice. Finally, scenes began to find their way onto paper.
During year two, I constructed a long, awkward 'spine' of a book with clunky pieces. I was still in the gathering and placing phase, and many of the pieces went off in all directions. It was such a mess! I shared it with friends who gently reflected back that yes, it was such a mess. Still, the book had come alive now, and we were in a rather obsessive relationship.
This summer, in shifts of between one and four hours of work on it every day (and dreaming about it all the time), I managed to cut and sand away the rough edges, find an internal logic, and let the story begin to shine by itself. I didn't answer all the questions I had about her, but now I could see parts of her life more clearly.
I'm a month away from submitting it to the first committee for their round of edits, and I have not performed a wedding for a year. And yet. Weddings are around me, I remember them, I think about them. Here is a clipping about my great-grandmother's engagement to my great-grandfather. . .
And here is what the wedding was like:
Somewhere I have a blurry grey and white photo of the couple, but I actually think the reporter's breathless words do them better justice. A gown trimmed with Valenciennes lace! Orange blossoms on her veil! My family remembers that the wedding took place in the 'keeping room' because it was a little too chilly to hold outside. The keeping room is where dairy products were kept at a steady temperature. My guess is that the milk and butter were removed, and the room was filled with flowers.
Thank you for reading, and wish me luck on this thesis.
Last Thursday I got one of the most exciting e-mails of my life. "Hello," it began, "I’m an editor with (a wedding magazine) and we’ve decided to feature your book in our review section of the winter/spring issue. . ."
At the fall equinox in 2014, it’s almost hard to remember June of 2012 when I signed the contract with Chronicle Books and sat down to write The Wedding Officiant’s Guide.
I sent my huge, messy draft to Doris Ober late that year. Doris is a meticulous independent editor as well as an excellent author. The rewriting took another nine months, and then I began to polish the story with Lisa Tauber and Dawn Yanagihara, my wonderful editors at Chronicle Books.
Gradually, the book rose out of my hands and flew off to live with the editors, designers, and producers, and I sat alone at my dining room table surrounded by vast silence. The book publishing process moves glacially when you are used to blogging. I countered the loss by creating a wildly improbable publicity scheme for myself and biting my nails.
Special cross-marketing events, national touring, knocking on Martha Stewart’s door. . . none of this has happened yet, and it probably won’t even be approved when I do get my fifteen minutes with the publicist at Chronicle Books. But something happened off of my radar, something marvelous. The publisher sent me a handful of author copies of the actual, adorable little sky-blue paperback, which I wrapped (as you see in the picture above) and mailed to all the people I interviewed for the book. But at the same time, Chronicle sent a bunch of the books (50? 100?) to reviewers and magazines.
Seeds were sown (have I mentioned how cool it is working with Chronicle?) and now I’m seeing tiny green leaves breaking the loamy surface.
Over the past several weeks I’ve identified elements of what, to me, would make up a satisfying Writers Colony, a summer boot camp for the writer who wants to complete a project or two. We’ve touched on the obvious importance of reading and writing, and on more subtle helps from meditation. We’ve looked at writing supports such as physical exercise and hearing other writers talk about their craft.
In addition to these, I recommend field trips to stimulate your brain. Not just your field work, but what Julia Cameron famously calls Artist Dates. You might poke around the shabby antique store in your neighborhood, or get a meal at a hot-dog stand shaped like an orange, or visit the bowling alley. Art museums and galleries, of course! This summer I went beachcombing in North Carolina’s Outer banks. Over several mornings I realized that gathering and sorting shells can become a profoundly insightful editing process, a metaphor learned through my hands and eyes that will inform my future work.
I also mentioned arts and crafts in my first post. Don’t confine yourself to the page, the screen, the black ant trail of letters marching ever onward. Make room for fun, mess, and possibility. If you have any art materials, unearth them and make a space for them. Schedule a late afternoon, or maybe an early morning. You have no art materials? String penne noodles on a length of dental floss and wear it. Or take a page from your newspaper and scribble on it, blacking out all but some random words. Gardening is good, as are origami and sketching. We are experimenting with new ways of seeing.
As I wrap up this series, I look at my two huge writing projects (one, the extroverted task of setting up a publicity strategy for The Wedding Officiant’s Guide, and the other very introspective task of figuring out how to tell the story of the next book) and I am glad to see that I accomplished something; I’ve chipped away at the mountains.
Accountability really helped. My friend, Jennifer, patiently accepts an e-mail from me every Friday afternoon that lists all the micro-actions I took that week. Jennifer is under no obligation to even read what I send. I keep a sticky note on my desktop, add to my list every time I do something, and start the list fresh on Saturday. Somehow this is the accountability that I need.
Have you heard the term “Bookending”? Suppose you have a task you really don’t want to face, for whatever reason. Work it out with a friend that you will call them just before the task and again just after the task. You don’t need to talk much—just check in. It really helps!
Accountability requires some form of community. Ultimately, community is what differentiates a writing retreat from a session at a writing colony. Where is your community? If you don't already have it, you might find some in a writing class, a writing MFA program, a poetry group, a writer's club, a coach, or in multiple online writing spheres.
I hope this Summer Writers Colony series entertained you, and in some way helped your own process. I expect to be called away from the laptop shortly as twin babies make their debut in my family. When I get back, I’ll write about weddings and my experience with publishing The Wedding Officiant’s Guide, as well as some thoughts arising from my spiritual studies.
What writing tasks did you work on this summer?
Last week I enjoyed a summer vacation and family reunion in a spectacularly large house on the Outer Banks, a place on the North Carolina coast I had not heard of. I tried new things like stalking wild mustangs, taking a group portrait on the beach, even poring through the Wright Brothers’ Memorial Museum in Kitty Hawk.
In the midst of the hubbub, I did some writing. I slipped away from the breakfast table every morning around seven and took barefoot walks in the sea foam, and along the way, two essays formed themselves.
Writing, after all, is why we are here in the Writers’ Colony, right? If not writing on a particular project, then doing other non-project writing that keeps us limber and juicy. Journaling, letters. Essays and poetry and little stories, all are encouraged.
And to feed our brains, we read good writing. I kept far from the laptop and television on vacation, and only used my phone as a camera. Books flew naturally into that vacuum. In eight or nine days I read:
Reading de Botton and Otsuka stretch my book-structuring skills and make me want to choose finer words. Allende makes me think about writing scenes and time transitions. Sparks points out that what I saw in the Outer Bank waves were porpoises, not dolphins. And Colwin makes me want to bake gingerbread. What are you reading?
And how are you working on your own writing project? Have you set yourself milestones? Here’s a list of marching orders I’ve cooked up for my new book. If you see anything you like, take it and make it work for you.
Tasks for the book
The Wharf to Wharf is an annual six-mile run/walk from Santa Cruz to Capitola. Each year, its 16,000 tickets sell out right away. Gentle coastal scenery, the ocean breezes, and support from a panoply of artistic Santa Cruzians -- all make this a special event. But better than that, better even than the T-shirt?
The best part is training for the Wharf to Wharf. After all, the event is only one morning long, but training requires, for me, weeks of walking my neighborhood. Every other morning I tramp through my local suburbs, immersed in the sound of wind through the trees. I scan flights of crows, lovingly tended gardens, dappled shade. Mornings are best, before the heat is too much. There’s a fresh quality to the light, an almost golden tinge to the edges of black oaks and pepper trees.
These past few weeks I’ve written about combining key elements to create a writer’s colony session in your own home, at your own pace. Part of our summer retreat has got to be exercise, if only to undo some of the damage that winter and bad habits created. Walking is my favorite -- athletics, esthetics, meditation and writing practice rolled into one.
Walking makes us breathe more deeply, washing away toxins accumulated from fretting at the computer as we write. The stride sends fresh waves of oxygenated blood coursing through the brain. The nonverbal rhythm of step after step informs the internal rhythm of words. Instead of focusing on marks that inch across the screen, we can practice diffuse awareness: the breeze, a scent of sun-ripened apricot, pressure from the balls of our feet resting on cement and then pushing off again. We spend some moments lost in thought, brought back abruptly by some external stimulant: a crossing, a dog, a bee, an airplane, another walker.
My body moves, my mind moves, my attention expands and contracts. All this allows new ideas, new solutions and resolutions. Walking also helps me to slowly release my writer’s tire and shake out ever-constricted shoulders. Writers have reported swimming and sweeping or raking to be similarly helpful. What physical activity keeps you sane as you write?
Last week we talked about how to find brilliant speakers to listen to during your stay at the Summer Writers’ Colony. Now let’s talk about listening for the most important voice of all.
The arc of this summer is about discovering your writing life. Retreats are about pruning away all the non-essentials of everyday life. For writers at Yaddo, all that’s left after pruning might be a small bed, a large desk, and lunch delivered every day in a basket.
But perhaps you, like me, are surrounded at home by family members, animals that need feeding, and mountains of laundry. Then it is essential to start, strengthen, and maintain a meditation practice, if you do not have one already. By meditating daily, you are creating that still, spare room in which you write. If you are starting your very first meditation practice, begin with five minutes. Lengthen your session by a minute every few days. Twenty minutes is a good session. Twenty minutes twice a day is probably optimum. You are rebooting your system.
You can find eleventy-seven ways to meditate on the Web, so I won’t crowd this post with how-to. But it’s worth pointing out that meditation practices tend to fall into one of two camps. Either you watch your thoughts rise and pass (insight meditation), or you perform a technique in order to temporarily ignore your thoughts (concentration or tranquility meditation).
Now, we writers think A LOT. We spend most of our time embroidering our stories—that’s how we roll. The benefit of owning a delirious writing brain is that when you give yourself a little peace and quiet, the most outrageous and wonderful ideas tend to pop up. The downside: we are more vulnerable than the average Jane to getting mired in our stories. Folks who are in recovery from various addictions are often warned, “Your mind is a dangerous neighborhood; don’t go in there alone.” But as a writer, I have to disagree — yes, it can be an dangerous place, but that's where I live and do my best work. We find our balance on the razor's edge.
So you might want to spend a little time thinking about which kind of meditation you need right now. If you are stuck in something you’re writing about, try insight meditation techniques and let the thoughts come. Just don’t chase them. Keep a pad nearby and jot down any particularly gripping scene or solution, then let it go. As a writer, you are allowed to do this. And then get back to your breath.
If, on the other hand, your mind is more crowded with characters than a Lower East Side turn-of-the-century tenement, by all means, use a mantram or your breath to shut off the neurojuice for a while. It’s your brain and your meditation practice. Make this divine tool work for you.
Your homework this week: Start a notebook about your writing life. When are your best hours? What helps you to quickly get down to business? How do you decompress? How’s the meditation going? Leave a comment and let us know!
These zen masters below, photographed by artist Peggy Anderson, are demonstrating the tranquility meditation method.
Welcome to part 2 of my Summer Writing Colony series. You can read Part 1 here. Make this year's staycation count! Today we will look at how you can bathe in wisdom from at least one brilliant speaker every day, even without a cent in your pocket.
National Public Radio
In my area of National Public Radio, we access an amazing weekly series of writer interviews called City Arts and Lectures. I have listened to and been inspired by writers in my car, at home, live streaming on the treadmill at the Y. But that's not the only writer-friendly program. Just today, Forum has a talk about letters between two poets. What's in your area?
The New York Times
The online New York Times has an Opinionator blog series called "Draft," essays on craft by exceptional writers. You can access the New York Times up to ten page views per month without paying. (I do support public radio and subscribe to news and writing outlets whenever I have the finances to do so.)
TED Talks and YouTube writer profiles
The online Technology, Entertainment and Design conference covers about a zillion topics. Did you know that TED has a series of talks exclusively about writing? Meanwhile YouTube has interviews with writers and poets, biographers and history detectives, and sometimes you can watch them read their work. Find the writers you love and admire and learn from them!
Even Writers' Digest is on YouTube. What else can you find?
Your Public Library
Bring home classic writing craft books, immerse yourself in a biography about a favorite writer, or find CDs where writers and poets read their own work. OMG, Audiobooks!
Help yourself write your book by checking out a few books on your subject matter. Live with them for a couple of weeks. You will get a deeper dive than online searching. And make an effort to let random chance happen. Make yourself WALK THE STACKS. Your serendipitous find may be just around the corner.
Local Author Events
You can learn so much about what the author wrote, how she or he wrote it, and more. You also do a service by attending, as any author would prefer to look at a group of living bodies rather than empty seats. And you never know who you will meet or what ideas will capture your mind.
While you can freely attend, try if you can to bring cash for the author's book.
Look up web sites for independent bookstores in your town. Barnes and Noble bookstores also have excellent author events. And check out any universities and community colleges in your area-- they often schedule visiting writer series.
This week's assignment: Get thee to a literary event/reading/viewing and tell me about it. Then, schedule in more events for the rest of your Summer Colony stay.
Greetings from my Summer Writing Colony. I love it here, and I am getting stuff done and surprising myself. Won’t you join me? It’s free, and you can attend from exactly where you are. It doesn’t matter whether your job or family can spare you—you can join!
Let me explain. There I was, salivating over writing workshops, conferences, and colonies listed in Poets and Writers and The Writer’s Chronicle. But this summer I don’t really have cash to attend, nor can I get away from family responsibilities, or add another flight onto my schedule.
Then I saw a line from one of Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project calendars:
“Put yourself in Creativity Boot Camp: Tackle a project in an intense, concentrated way, and push yourself to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time.”
I returned to my magazines with new eyes. If I could design my own retreat, what exactly would it look like? Soon I was cutting and pasting ads until I had created my ideal Summer Writing Colony poster. “Weekly Intensives,” I promised myself, in an atmosphere that would be “Supportive, Yet Demanding.”
Most of my energy in this colony session will go into reading, writing, and completing supportive, yet demanding weekly assignments. But I will also experience literary field trips, arts and crafts sessions, lectures from brilliant guest speakers, and daily meditation and soul guidance. And this place happens to feature delicious food and fun physical workouts. It’s kind of a spa retreat and writing boot camp all rolled into one. At home.
Over the next six or seven weeks I’ll break down the menu so you can implement YOUR OWN writing colony schedule as an honorary member.
Your assignment for this week: Buy or borrow a writing magazine that inspires you. Read your writing source this week and take notes about what you want to do on your next four to six weekly intensives.
See if you can do some cutting, taping, and designs to create your OWN poster of intention for this summer—or make one online on Pinterest. What do you want to accomplish this summer? What does your ideal retreat look like? Let me know!
Here are some thoughts about weddings, writing, and the world. Enjoy.