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

 Asked to contribute my thoughts on Writers Writing, the Blog Hopping author tour that's taking place all over blogland these days;  I had to think about why and how I actually write.  I know it makes me happy and has always been a part of my life. But 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! 
                                                                                                                                      Joan Stommen

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 exactly 9 months ago today 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 my mentor Kim Jorgensen Gane at Gane Possible 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!

I am pleased to pass the torch on how and why Writers Write to another blogger who will share her personal story on growing, creating and becoming. Read Crystal Ponti's bio below and watch for her post next week!

Crystal Ponti is the founder of Blue Lobster Book Co.; a full-service, self-publishing boutique. Before launching her own business, she worked for many years in community management, working for and consulting with some of the largest sites in the world including Answers.com and Google. Prior to working at Answers, she spent a number of years as a business and marketing consultant helping entrepreneurs plan, launch, and grow their businesses. Since then, she has focused on book marketing. Most recently she served as Managing Editor, Contributing Author and publisher of the book The Mother of All Meltdowns, a tell-all collection of moms' finest (worst, completely awful) moments. She also blogs at MommiFried, an outlet for her creative writing and a way to share her later-in-motherhood experiences with all women and parents, and is a regular contributor to Felicity Huffman's site What the Flicka? and Business @ Community.


  1. Wow, Joan. I loved this tender post.
    I so understand...even though Mike was not a writer and he only ever read one of my poems. He had his own way of being my support system and let me be the butterfly.
    I love that you write standing up!

    1. Thanks Olga. I didn't plan to write about him again....but it just kind of kept flowing out. Guess I needed it.
      Thanks for stopping by my friend!

  2. How lucky you were to have him! And you know that he is a big part of cheering you on now. Blessings...

    1. Thank you, sweet Carol. Thanks for knowing he's still with me in unexpected ways.

  3. Writing is hardest when it has the most potential to heal, I think. I've dealt with grief this way, as you have. So scary to think the skill is gone, but you know, it never will be. It will only become your strong companion. Love to you, and, Godspeed.

    1. This made me tear up, Susan....you're so right. I didn't realize until now...but that's how it goes. I know I'll always have my writing...and therefore a part of him. Thanks for these sweet words.

  4. Joan. Moving, poignant and eloquent. I love your flowery words, and had to chuckle that my husband and your husband edit in much the same way. I'm touched to be considered your mentor in any form. We are all mentors for one another in whatever ways we've forged ahead. We all have the ability to hold out a hand and bring someone along, as your perspective on writing through grief has done for others. Grateful for you. And cannot WAIT to meet you this summer!

  5. Joan, that was lovely. Your husband did indeed prepare you well. Your love for and expertise at writing shine clearly through this post!
    Quite honestly, losing my husband in such a way is one of my deepest fears. He had a heart attack 3 years ago, and while he exercises regularly and looks and feels great, as you and I both know, life is unpredictable, at best.
    I salute your ability to re-enter the pool, as it were, after losing your lifeguard, and greatest friend.
    I hope that book about your father gets written! I know you have it in you!

    1. Thank you, my new friend. This made me tear up because you could hear my voice...my passion for writing! Thanks for the vote of confidence, Susan ♥

  6. Beautiful post, Joan. I am so glad you that found the courage to continue to write and that we connected on the Midlife Blvd. Like you, writing has also rescued me many times, but I never had to recover from something so overwhelming. I am so sorry for the loss of your beloved husband, your "editor," your best friend. I will look forward to reading your story about your dad's experience in WWII. I know that the French have never forgotten the sacrifices Americans made. You may be interested in reading this http://pattymackz.com/wordpress/blog/normandy-70th-anniversary-of-d-day-june-6-1944-2014/

    1. Thank you for your sweet words, Pat. I appreciate you taking time to read and respond.....and to offer your post on the 70th celebration of D Day! I must have missed this; going to the site to read now!
      Thankful as well that I'm meeting great friends/great writers like you on Midlife Boulevard. Stay in touch :)

  7. I (unconsciously) smiled while reading this, Joan. What struck me most was that part when you said "He proofed every piece I wrote and gave me the go-ahead to publish." It's strange, but I felt so much tenderness and intimacy in that.

    Thanks for sharing this, especially since I'm new to the Women of Midlife community. You've made me ask myself too, why I write, although I know that like you, I find it therapeutic. When I was single, esp. during those times I was in the middle of heartbreak, writing in my journal became my best friend and yes, catharsis for me. I never expected that years later I'd be blogging and doing more of it (although in a more edited way I suppose). Anyway, before I start to babble, I better end here and say thank you again for sharing your life, your loss, your tips and advice for writing and your neverending 'love affair' with it (writing). 'Till the next time! :-)

    1. Wow...this brought tears to my eyes, Joy. Knowing that you could 'feel' our love and connection through my words touched me. I'm glad you've joined this amazing group; we all learn so much from each other and it's where I found the strength to keep moving/writing after Jim passed away. I appreciate your kind words and look forward to your blog posts!