Writing to The Rescue...and Other Writing Process Tips

  this is the first time I've actually considered what it means to write. According to my old diary tucked away in a drawer, I've been writing down stuff since I was 10 years old.  Over the years I've had the privilege to write for various publications and to teach writing skills to children, teachers and college students.  It doesn't matter whether I'm reading someone else's work or composing my own piece...the written word never fails to thrill! 
Whether relief from worry or a release of joy…writing has always helped me...even rescued me at times from whatever life presented. But the one time writing couldn't rescue me was when my husband passed away. He laid down for an afternoon nap  and never woke up.  

                                                            I could not write.

Losing him after 47 years of marriage was the final blow that destroyed my cocoon. You know; that place that insulates, envelopes and embraces us from birth. I had it all…happy childhood, wonderful husband and the joys of being sandwiched between my parents and grandchildren into my 60’s.  The death of my folks in recent years was hard, but not as devastating as losing my guy. My cocoon was suddenly gone and I was a hesitant butterfly with wings unprepared to fly alone; to find my way into an unknown future. I couldn't write for a very long time. I was afraid to write about death, sadness, pain, guilt and fear.

                                               Mostly, I was afraid to write alone.

He was a writer and editor, a guardian of language and my cheerleader. Earlier that day I took this photo in his office and added the quote he was so fond of. It reminded me how we spent our mornings in retirement; sharing our excitement and joy of the written word over coffee…me from the  op-ed page of our local paper, he chuckling over an article in Sports Illustrated.  I love how much our reading/writing connection kept us close all those years. He proofed every piece I wrote and gave me the go-ahead to publish. More time went by with me filling drafts and notes with random words, but I had no voice with which to use them.

                                           And then I did it…I wrote.

 Putting bits of my usual happy into the terrible sorrow of my heart, I managed to create Till Death Do Us Part. I put in a disclaimer that it was done with no sounding board or editorial check; worried I’d embarrass myself with errors and typos.  I felt both relief and release as the words poured out and made sense; a kind of peaceful  strength when it was accepted. Finally expressing these feelings about loss helped move me forward, helped me begin to heal. 

                                        Writing rescued me after all!

 After six months, I wrote about the things I'd learned and managed on my own in Becoming a Widow. Little did I know that finally sharing my thoughts and experience would not only bring responses of welcome back or well done; but an outpouring of gratefulness for putting into words what others will someday need to know.

                                           Writing became the breeze I needed.

I’m growing more confident with writing now; contributing to blogs and websites and working toward eventual publication of my Dad’s WWII experiences. Somewhere along the way I reached down deep and found that my parents and husband had been preparing me all along in those happy-go-lucky cocoon years. I feel their presence at times with warm, fuzzy feelings of accomplishment or that inner voice that whispers ‘proofread one more time’…definitely my husband!

                               He equipped me really well to fly alone...

 but I’m never far from hands that lift me up on this writing journey. Amazing writers and authors like Kim Jorgensen Gane and our colleagues on Midlife Boulevard continually offer me encouragement and guidance as I learn to soar alone. It’s not a cocoon, but a tribe that embraces me just the same.

 Here is what I've discovered about my writing:

 1)  What am I working on/writing?  I have my parents’ love letters from the WWII years 1943-1945 and I’m pulling bits and pieces of them together for their memoir….or maybe it’ll be mine since they reflect the beginning of me! I have notes and tapes from interviews with my Dad about his experiences as a B-17 bombardier; his tales of being shot down, parachuting into enemy territory, hiding in bushes until he was discovered and hidden by local members of the French Underground for 70 days. I’ve had all this for 3 ½ years…when I said “I want it, I want it all”  as my siblings and I cleaned out the family home after Mom died. It’s overwhelming and time consuming trying to narrow down, connect threads…weave something interesting for my family….for history. I’m also gathering old letters, news clippings and magazine articles about my husband to show my kids and grandkids what a respected, accomplished man he was. Will I stick to the facts with this project…as he always preached...or let the spotlight shine on my voice a bit too?

2)  How does my work/writing differ from others in its genre? I write about family, life and love as others do….but probably much more gushy-mushy, sensitive and emotional.  For many years I was a two-faced writer; news articles for my husband…who weeded out my fluffy, wordy details…and creative journaling in my classroom.  This was where my penchant for over-sharing, over-stating and over-doing colorful sentences really blossomed.  Somewhere along the line he acknowledged this and occasionally turned his weekly column over to me. I was thrilled to add these bylines to my scrapbooks. With a lifetime of diary entries, essay-length letters to family and friends, attempts at poetry and grab-your-attention hand-outs for my staff development workshops; writing a blog was a natural fit for me. However...blogging has its own set of instructions. I learned by reading other blogs and asking questions.  This wealth of knowledge plus continually polishing my own writing finally gave me confidence to join bigger avenues. I was a guest blogger for other sites, had some pieces accepted by More magazine’s ‘My Story' online blog, and was interviewed about writing memoirs for a senior living community. As I grow along….I learn more each day and no longer worry as much about genre or messing up. 

      3)  Why do I write what I do?  I think of my writing as an outlet, not an obligation.  I write because it helps me organize and analyze my thoughts and feelings. I’ve always expressed myself better through writing than speaking. Those elusive connections and words that don’t always pop out automatically in conversation come easier for me through the back and forth process of writing. I’m a memory maker, a Kodak moment kind of girl….so I create windows to look back through….to remember things, savor them, share them.   
Sometimes, like Flannery O’Connor, I don’t know what I think or feel till I write it down.  I like feeling that “aha” moment when the right words come together to say it well. If I can paint a picture with my words and weave stories out of sentences about my family and my life, I am happy. I love how words go together…the rhythm and rhyme of words. I know all words have been written before, but composing them into my own creation defines what is mine.

      4)  How does my writing process work?
 I have unfinished drafts, notes lying around here and there and entries in the journal I use at bedtime; so I guess that’s my start. Sometimes my words flow together smoothly, other times I stumble with word choice; or I fumble with descriptive details when a short, punchy phrase would work better.  My third grade grandson, completing a writing assignment, explained this to me about adjectives: “Describing words can ‘up’ or ‘down’ the meaning...so you have to use wow words to up it.”  Pretty cool!  I go back and reread constantly, visualize and rephrase. It’s all reaction and that’s the key. I’m a fan of the old sloppy copy...get it all down, then go back and react and edit for the technicalities! This is what my husband handled, so now proofreading is a big deal for me. If my son or daughter are around, I ask them to have a read. I send off copy with permission to edit/revise as needed. I’m getting better, but what matters most is if my voice can be heard.  When I covered news events years ago, I worked on deadline. But I don’t really like writing on demand. Writing this today meant it had a due date!  I’m more comfortable writing when I’m in the mood, when I have a fun adventure, strong emotions or trying to figure things out.

Music and standing up are important as well. Since becoming more health conscience and physically fit the past few years, I’m aware that too much sitting is harmful.  My laptop sits waist-high in front of a window where I can see my side garden and neighborhood beyond. With music playing I stretch, wiggle, do leg raises and strengthen balance by standing on one foot. This helps me focus for a couple hours, keeps me limber and makes me happy. Maybe it was years of TV sports talk coming from somewhere in the house...or the Broadway show tune CD's he loved; but the house is too quiet here alone. I listen to Zumba class routines, movie soundtracks, current tunes and my all-time favorite oldies!

Update; May, 2016
I am blessed to have so many mentors and cheerleaders now! Attending my first blogging conference gave me greater confidence and assurance that yes, I am a writer! The best takeaway from Bloggers At Midlife Conference? We never stop learning and growing....Write on! 

All That I Am, I Owe to My Mom

A lovely card arrives in the mail with a touching verse...but when you open it....there's just a signature. This always disappoints me, but not everyone is like me.  If I spend time browsing and choosing for an occasion, I most certainly add a few thoughts before signing, sealing and delivering.
For Mother's Day 2003, I really got carried away; I wrote a message that took up both sides of the card, all over the back... and up and around the edges! It turned into a whopper of a thank you note. Of course Mom saved it....she saved pretty much everything her four kids gave her over the years.

With their 60th wedding anniversary celebration set for the following month, my sister and brothers and I compiled a family video of my folk's long love and marriage. Evidently previewing the video impacted my writing that day.

 me as I was the oldest. I also remember how you always made me feel special! Even to this day you still tell me I'm special....and you know what? I've  always told my kids how special each of them is. Thank you for instilling that in me. Thank you for teaching me how to think with my heart as well as my head, to put myself in other people's shoes; for always believing in a better tomorrow with faith and hope. I still get teased for being too optimistic sometimes....'Pollyanna Joan'....and for not using my head more. But I am what I am and I'm so proud to be your daughter and be part of our wonderful family! 

You and Daddy have given us all the great family traditions, routines, superstitions, "Bickleyisms" and a strong belief in God and prayer. Isn't it interesting that our family has such a mix of religions today......that we were allowed to explore religious paths when we were young. (Remember my first college roommates-a Catholic and Jewish girl?) And boy, did I explore! You never batted an eye when your two Catholic kids, a Methodist and whatever Dave is attend St Andrews Presbyterian with you on our visits home! Thank you for giving me a sense of curiosity and the freedom to try new things. I'm also grateful to you both for allowing us to grow up without any prejudice. In this day and age and looking back on history...I only have to remember riding the bus downtown Detroit and never thinking about skin color....thank you for that.

Thank you for teaching me to find the good in everyone, to forgive and forget and to always believe in myself. As we grow older, I am inspired by the energy and curiosity and enjoyment you and Daddy still have everyday! You are what it means to "grow old gracefully".....thank you for showing me that there is delight in small, everyday things! As much as I love you for being my mother, I love you just as much for your friendship. It's always great fun hanging out with you! 
I am running out of room here, but it's hard to wind it up. You are such a great person, a wonderful woman and I love you now and forever with all my heart!
XXOO Joanie

I'm so glad my parents got to read this card. Exactly a year later in May, 2004, my dad passed away. it's hard to believe he's been gone thirteen years. Mom and I continued to hang out and share lots of good times...right up until the moment 7 years ago when she left to join my dad.  If you've taken time to read; grab this take-away; take a minute to personalize your cards....and find the chance to thank your parents soon!

          Happy Mother's Day to Moms and Grandmas Everywhere!