Pages & Paws

Writing, Reading, and Rural Life With a Border Collie


Just Do It

If you’re a blogger, you’re bound to hit The Wall sooner or later.  If you’re reading this, you know what I mean: the “blank screen” bloggers hit when they’re fresh out of ideas.

It’s not unusual.  Skim the blogosphere for any length of time and you’re bound to snag posts like, 20 topic suggestions for writing blog posts, or 10 ideas for awesome blog posts.  A lot of people spill considerable ink telling other people how to come up with fresh ink.

Keeping up a blog is hard work.  Let’s face it: sometimes the well runs dry.

So rather than regale you with more brilliant ideas or suggestions for writing winning blog posts, let me offer a suggestion you don’t hear much:

Take a break.

Take a Vacation

That’s right.  Take a blogging vacation.  Let your readers know that while you appreciate their loyalty, you need some time to recharge the ‘ole creative batteries.  You might let them know how long you plan to be away and when you plan to return.  Then disconnect.  Really.

Instead of blogging, go for a walk.  Play with your kids.  Eat a banana split.  Take up line-dancing, a watercolor class, or wood carving.  Find a new author.  Make a new friend.  Change the oil in your car.  Quit stressing about your next blog post or series.  There’s something therapeutic and bracing about shifting gears, trying something novel, exploring new territory.  Whatever it takes to replenish the well.

Productive ‘Down Time’

I know, I know.  This may seem counter-intuitive for some, especially you Type-A personalities.  Trust me on this.  You’d be surprised at how productive “down time” can be, or how a chance of pace, fresh perspective, or renewed energy pays off in the long run.  I’ve found then when a “rested” mind is a more creative mind.  Some of my best ideas and creative bursts have come after I’ve turned off the computer and gone “on vacation.”

How long should your blogging vacation last?  That’s up to you.  Running on fumes isn’t doing you or your readers any favors.  You’ll both be better off when you can hit the blogosphere fresh.  When you start feeling like blogging is fun again, you’re on the right track.

So turn off the computer and take Nike’s advice: Just do it.

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How Do You Know?

How do you know if you’re a writer?   Do you know when someone says, “Hey! I saw your byline in Barnes & Noble the other day! Good work!”?  Or when you say to yourself, “I’m a writer.  I am. I am. I am”?  Do you know when you land that first publishing contract or take part in your very own book signing?

I think a writer is someone who writes because he or she can’t not write.

I majored in Communication/Print Media.  Worked in public relations and marketing.  Wrote press releases, news articles and feature stories by the boatload.  Ditto short stories, novellas, historical fiction and devotionals.  Even dabbled in a little poetry here and there when no one was lookin’.  Some of my work has “seen the light.”  Some not.

Much More

Know what?  It doesn’t matter. Because writing is more than a profession.  Much more.  It’s a calling.  Something you were born to do. That’s not to say that writing will always come easily, effortlessly, like falling off a chair.  Writing is work.  But for real writers, there’s nothing more satisfying than… writing.

Something to Say

If you’re a writer, you have something to say.  A part of yourself to give.  A story to clawing at your guts, bellowing to be let out and dribbled onto paper or keyboard.  Trying to bottle up a story in a writer is like trying to cork a Tyrannosaurus Rex into a pint-sized milk carton.

Let it out. Say it. Give it.  Share it.

Keep at It

Whether or not you land a publishing contract doesn’t really matter.  You’ll get better with practice and persistence.  If you’re a real writer, you won’t quit.  Even in the face of rejection letters.  (Don’t let that curmudgeonly editor discourage you.  Learn from his criticism and improve.)

If you’re a real writer, you can’t not write.  It’s who you are.  With or without an audience.  Whether people are listening or not. Writing is something you were born to do, a craft under constant revision.  It’s something you need…  Like fish need water.  Birds need air.

What matters is that you start.  Today.  Be prepared to learn, grow, explore and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.  You can do it!

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Read For Your Life

Today we’re getting to know wordsmith, researcher, editorial assistant, collaborative author and free lance writer Peggy Matthews-Rose, who co-authored Read For Your Life with Pat Williams.

Tell us something about yourself

As far as this book is concerned, many may find it interesting that the two authors live on opposite coasts of the U.S. We’d met at a Christian booksellers conference several years before and collaborated on several projects, including the book How to Be Like Walt: Capturing the Disney Magic Every Day of Your Life (HCI, 2004). Pat Williams lives in Orlando, Florida. I live in Orange County, California. The entire process of collaborating on this book was done by phone, email, and snail mail.

What’s most interesting about us? Pat happens to be founder and Senior Vice President of the Orlando Magic NBA basketball team, father of 19 children (yes, you read that right), author of more books than I can count, and most recently a cancer survivor. Diagnosed in early 2011 with multiple myeloma, Pat is characteristically beating it back, thanks to an amazing stem cell transplant procedure.

My own claim to fame is a little less spectacular, though saying I worked at Disneyland for many, many years—about half of them in communications roles—and about $3 gets me a nice drink at Starbucks. Today I freelance as a collaborative writer, editor, and general, all-around word nerd.

What inspired you to write this book? Pat is well known in his circles as a prolific reader. And prolific may not be a strong enough word to describe his habits. Obsessive may be more like it. As for me, I’ve always enjoyed a good read. A writer for about as long as I can remember, I found that reading great writing helped me improve my own.

An in-demand motivational speaker, Pat always puts in at least two-bits on reading into his messages, and always extends to his audience his reading challenge. He is always impressed by how many, especially men, would come up to him afterwards, admitting they needed to read more. Many letters he’s received attest to the fact that the message resonates.

One day, Pat read an NEA report that revealed the abysmal state of reading scores in our schools. A little more research told him most men never open a book after graduating high school or college. These facts, along with the response his reading message continues to receive, told him it was time to finally take his message to a book of his own. I was blessed at that time to be his choice as writer.

How did you choose the title? We brainstormed it, beginning with a list of anything and everyone we could think of about reading. For me, it was a visual thing. Although the final cover art ended up not reflecting what I saw in my mind, I envisioned Pat as a runner (he is a marathoner), handing out books like water bottles to fellow runners who were passing out on the sidelines. Hence, Read for Your Life.

Another thing to consider in choosing book titles is whether or not the one you like most is already out there. While book titles are not copyrighted, you wouldn’t want to pick one that might make yours more difficult to sell. Many readers say they pick a book by either the cover or the title, so those two things matter a lot!

What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them? As always, the number one obstacle is finding a publisher. Thankfully, Pat came to this project with one of those already lined up. Subsequent books I’ve done with Pat have been more challenging, but there really were no major hurdles where this book was concerned. If only they could all be this way! Biggest challenge, perhaps, was that the pub date was pushed back a few times. Gave me more time to work, so not really a challenge, other than in terms of patience. Is that cheating to say it wasn’t all that hard? Maybe so.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?

Pat is a natural born communicator. But it was after he’d spent a number of years in professional sports and was being recognized as an up-and-coming general manager for the Chicago Bulls that he was first approached with the idea of doing a book. The man who came to him was a young fellow by the name of Jerry B. Jenkins. Well, that book never happened, but Pat did get the “book writing bug” and learned about hiring a wordsmith to help him get his books done. Not sure what the current score is, but I imagine his books today number 70 or more. He is a non-stop book machine.

As I said in an our interview re: How to Be Like Walt, I knew I wanted to write the first time a grade school teacher read one of my stories out loud. In junior high I was bit by the journalism bug and served as staff writer and/or editor of about four different school publications though college. My professional start came when I interned for a staff writer job at Disneyland and was hired fulltime shortly after that. I edited the “cast” newsletter and an internal magazine for several years and worked briefly at Walt Disney Studios later on.  Following a few years of semi-retirement (aka being a full-time mom), I returned and worked in similar roles.

Then one day I read this little gem of a book called Roaring Lambs, by the late Bob Briner. It challenged me to see if I could do this “writing thing” on my own. Thanks to the opportunities God has brought my way, I’ve been able to work on some great projects over the past ten years or so since I cut those corporate apron strings.

Truth: making a living as a writer is tough, so don’t do it for that reason. I’ve learned you don’t need to be a John Grisham to be a writer, just to be one with an income you can survive on. To be a writer, you just have to write.

Do you have any writing rituals?

Minimum page a day, any topic, just to stay in the zone and keep the juices flowing. Years ago in an online writing class I learned about a technique called “stepping stones” that coaxes your imagination to pull memories and stories from your life. Haven’t done that one in a while but it’s a great habit to develop.

Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book?  What?

I learned I could write a book! Woohoo! That was huge.

And there were many other lessons…like how bad the literacy situation really is and what each of us can do to both become more literate and encourage greater literacy. It’s “literally” true that we must read for our lives. The recent passing of Ray Bradbury brought back this message from his flagship work, Fahrenheit 451. Those who can read ultimately have power over those who cannot. Be empowered. Read daily. Lots of tips on “how to” in this book. By the way, F451 played a prominent role in Read for Your Life.

If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently? Can’t think of a thing. The whole process was pretty smooth. I imagine that is not usually the case. Maybe I would worry less. When I wrote this book I kept my laptop on my nightstand, since ideas would always come to me while I was trying to go to sleep. Now I’ve got an iPad for that purpose. Recommend.

What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors? Why?

Peggy Matthews-Rose

I’ve always lived in Fantasyland, literarily. Love children’s classics (especially Peter Pan), C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. One of the first big books to make a huge impression on me as a teenager was T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. Wonderful work. Good enough to inspire a Disney movie (The Sword in the Stone) and  a musical (Camelot). These authors all knew how to grab hearts and imaginations. They didn’t write down to the child but well understood and spoke to the child inside us all.

When my son was little we started “family reading hour,” devoting time each night to a classic book of some kind. Today, though my son is grown and has a daughter of his own, my husband and I continue to read books together. That’s a great habit to develop. Together, we like to read books on American history, biblical topics, and the current political scene.

Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?

No urgent books in the works right now, though I am in talks with several potential writing partners.

*What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

Write because you love it. Write because you cannot not write. Write every day, because it’s who you are. If you happen to get published, praise the Lord! But write because you love it and not because you want to be “in print.” If being read matters to you, write a blog…and then make sure to send the link to your mother.

Who is the perfect reader for your book?

The perfect reader for our book is someone who hasn’t yet realized the importance of reading, though we recognize that this is not the likely reader. After all, how do you get people who don’t like to read to read a book about reading? But our hopes from the beginning were to encourage reading and from the letters and comments we’ve received, it seems to be hitting that mark.

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?

Pat Williams

Those who’d love to improve their own reading skills and/or encourage others to do so may find our book on Read Your Life Yourself Through. Learn more about voracious reader Pat Williams or follow him on Twitter. You can find little old wordsmith me on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter (@pegmrose). Or sometimes you can just find me hanging out at Disneyland.

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Skipping the Tiramisu

How many times have you heard, What are you writing? … Working on? …  Have in the pipeline?

How many times are you asked, “Why?”  As in, Why are you a writer?  Why do you write?  Why do you invest so much time, energy and passion into word-smithing and story-spinning?

“Why?” isn’t a trivial question.  In fact, Why? may be a lot more important than what, where, how, or even who.

Possible response to “Why?” that I’ve heard:

  • To make money
  • I want to get my message out
  • To become famous
  • Because I have a story to tell

Notice a common thread?  These are all “me-isms.”  In other words, it’s all about me.

Part of what makes great writing great is that it moves us beyond ourselves.  Expands our horizons.  Draws new paradigms. Explores an old topic from a new angle.  Moves us to tears.  Sends us into gales of laughter.  Breaks the mold.  Challenges, educates, dares, inspires.  You know you’ve come across truly great writing when you happily skip a luscious plate of tiramisu to finish the next chapter.

Yes, I know we all find ourselves fascinating.  But if our writing consists solely and wholly of me-isms without connecting to something bigger – family, faith, nature, tiramisu – then we’re just cranking out a commercial.

We can do better.  Dig digger.  Fly higher.  Stretch.  Explore.  Grow. The tiramisu will wait.

Which of your favorite authors writes “bigger than yourself”?

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Review of ‘Angela’s Ashes’

Angela’s Ashes

By Frank McCourt

Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), 1996

“Not for the faint-hearted” is perhaps over-used, but in the case of Frank McCourt’s memoir of his growing up years, Angela’s Ashes, it is apt.  (“Angela” is his mother’s name.)

The son of an alcoholic Irish man, McCourt paints a gritty picture without a brush of self-pity.  The prose is genuine and so gritty you can almost hear McCourt’s brogue singing through each page as he recounts life in a tumbledown shack on “the lane” in Ireland that floods and freezes in winter and swarms with fleas and stink in the summer.

His story begins in America, but soon high-tails it back to Ireland, where he details a professional unemployed father, grim family members, the loss of a baby sister, two twin boys, “the hunger” as well as the “Angel on the Seventh Step.”      It’s all there – the almost unbelievable poverty, hunger, filth, disease, despair, religious superstition.

In spite of a childhood chockfull of incredible hardship, deprivation, cruelty and misery, there’s something transcendent and luminescent about McCourt’s story.  Even with typhoid fever, “the shame,” and his father’s habit of “drinking his wages on the pint,”  McCourt refuses to sink into a slough of despond or bitterness.  Plucky Frank (short for Francis, “after the saint”) pulls himself up by own bootstraps and does so in an engaging, almost lyrical manner that’ll have you cheering – and perhaps shedding a tear or two – by the end of this remarkable, heart-breakingly heroic Pulitzer Prize Winner.

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Review of ‘No Ordinary Day’

No Ordinary Day

By Deborah Ellis

“The best day of my life was the day I found out I was not alone in the world” begins this slim, no-nonsense tome by Deborah Ellis, followed by, “This is how it happened.”  Easily read in a day or two, No Ordinary Day is narrated by the protagonist, Valli, a young orphan girl who escapes the coal pits of Jharia, India to roam the highways and byways of Kolkata, India.  The story unfolds through Valli’s eyes, ears, and feet.  Yes, feet.  Feet that have been burnt, cut, and injured without an “Ouch!”

Through a series of circumstances like “washing” in the filthy Ganges River near a funeral pyre, Valli meets Dr. Indra as the doc reads an English Bible.  Noticing how Valli steps into burning coals to escape a bee without any subsequent reaction, Dr. Indra offers, “I’d like you to come with me.  My name is Indra.  I’m a doctor and I can fix your feet.”

Easier said than done.  Overcoming ignorance, apathy, fear, poverty and prejudice is no small feat.  But Valli is not alone.

No Ordinary Day is no ordinary book.  Ellis skillfully weaves science, medicine, socio-economics, class and caste disparities, hunger, alcoholism, poverty, abandonment, stereotypes, education and kindness into a seamless story of hope. No Ordinary packs a wallop while treating its audience with respect, allowing readers to form their own opinions and conclusions.

Includes an Author’s Note debunking common myths about leprosy and a Glossary of commonly used Indian words.  Also the statement, “Royalties from the sale of this book will be donated to The Leprosy Mission.”