Text Stop — The Need to Write


I’m not sure why this sign struck me as funny other than that it elevated texting to a basic need. Communication of course is essential to our well-being, but is not usually regarded with the same urgency as “rest stop.”

In thinking about this, though, maybe writing and communication are more necessary to human survival than might appear.

For people who write, words dance in our heads. Sometimes “they need to get out” – they need to be captured by pen or keystroke lest they vanish, lest we forget.

Once as a student, I woke from a compelling dream, and keeping pen and pad on my nightstand, forced myself to jot down notes before falling back to sleep. In the morning, I looked at my scribbles and saw they were gibberish. So much for the perfect plot line.

The need to write can be healthy in that it drives us to organize our thoughts, energizes us when we’re tired, pushes us to perfection, motivating us to add one more letter, one more line, paragraph, page — until it “feels right.”

Do you remember the movie Quills?  It was fairly disturbing, taking place in an insane asylum that housed the Marquis de Sade. While most of us associate him with other unsavory acts, this film focused on his obsession with writing as a protest against censorship and was a conveyance of mental imbalance. For him, writing was a compulsion, a therapy, a release. While I don’t recall too many details, I do remember leaving with the sense that writing was in fact, his “life blood.”

Sometimes the persona of “writer” makes us cranky as we watch others empowered with social media tools. OK, some are glib, informative and thought-provoking, but others are just plain self-serving, illiterate and nasty. To this end, we need to continually distinguish ourselves in skill, accuracy, and originality.

The ability to write serves different purposes. Sometimes we write because it’s necessary (“Jimmy, please write a thank you note to Grandma.”); sometimes we write to avoid face-to-face confrontation (“Susie, I’m sorry I stood you up the other night.”); writing gives us a voice (“Dear Sirs: The car you sold me is a lemon.”); writing conveys leadership. (“As my research findings show…”)

But what if writing is simply indulgent? I say, go for it! Sit on a bench in a meadow and pretend you’re in a Victorian Garden or on the high seas or in outer space. Writing helps us travel, imagine, age with wisdom or return to youth.

Yet writing isn’t all about emotion. This word-business can be lucrative, too. Sometimes aspiring writers forget that not everyone is an editor, English teacher, columnist or novelist. There are copywriters, speech writers, web writers, direct response writers, grant writers, medical writers, and technical writers to name a few. For any industry or profession, you will surely find writers who specialize in those topics and are gifted at generating vast volumes of content in a world that is hungry for it.

What about ghost writing? Could you do it? Not sure I could. I think I’d want to take credit for my work. (because — despite the gratification– it is work, especially when someone else is depending on it)

Sometimes the challenge of writing short is just as difficult as writing long. The 140 characters of a Tweet aren’t always enough to express a full thought, but then again, drafting a 400 page manuscript is not something most of us have time to do… so maybe how we write is a  matter of convenience, something we shape and format for the occasion.

I remember climbing into the cliff dwellings of Bandalier, an ancient Native American site in New Mexico, thinking that this need to write is wired into the human psyche.  There on the cave walls, ceilings, and rock sides are petroglyphs that tell the stories of long ago. There are tales of travel, symbols of strength, and a suggestion of seasons. Thanks to pictorial writing, history is alive here.  It envelops us, transports us, helps us understand– or in more modern terms, “it engages us.”  How ironic.  We act as if story telling were new.

Stringing the Line


I’m not sure when I began using a clothesline – could have been in a moment of nostalgia or environmental concern – more likely motivated by not wanting to spend money on electricity or having brand new jeans shrink 3 sizes. I don’t use it for everything, but it’s great for shirts and pants that benefit from brisk breezes and sunlight.

This year, my line was frazzled. For some reason, the cotton fiber disintegrated around the core. When used, it would disperse a cloud of dust that made me cough. With fall upon us, I decided this was a good time to string up a new line, and so doing, I realized it was a lot like writing.

First, I unraveled the twine, careful to keep it taut and anchored at both ends. Then I tied it and wound it multiple times around each hook. I punctuated it with  new clothespins, interspersed with the old, testing it out later in the day to make sure it held strong. I now step back and admire it, suspended bright and clean among the trees. The purpose remains somewhere between functional and aesthetic.

You may not want a clothesline in the front yard, but there’s something rural … homey… down to earth about it.  A lot like employing a style of writing that is gritty and unpretentious.

Clotheslines reveal a changing color palette:  blues, grays, browns, and burgundy in the cooler seasons; pink, aqua, celadon, salmon and white in summer. The line reflects the setting.

Occasionally the line supports memories –  a wizard’s hat and cape from a long-ago Halloween,  beach towels and handmade coverlets, an all-black array of tee shirts emblazoned with the names and images of rock bands.

A sturdy clothesline bridges time. Remember the teachings of the clothesline when writing:

1. Replace worn cliches with something crisp.
2. Anchor solidly in the context of the story or message.
3. Space word choice so you don’t repeat too often.
4. Punctuate as needed.
5. Mix daring information with comfortable reference.
6. Don’t weigh it down with verbosity.
7. Change up the palette – make it colorful at times.
8. Step back, review, and don’t be afraid to cut it.
9. Reposition phrasing for balance, continuity.
10. Take elements apart and reconfigure until they look right.
11. Don’t let anyone tell you how to string your line, but observe how others do it. (OK, maybe a good editor)
12. Use your line to let characters air out emotions and anger.
13. Admire your line but remember it may not last forever.
14. Invite someone to try it and see how it works.
15. Don’t shoo away birds that sit on your line; they will add interest.
16. Make sure your line will weather all seasons.
17. If your line gets tangled, unwind it and make it linear again.
18. When your line sways in the wind, enjoy it as open to interpretation.
19. Consider a second line for support.
20. And don’t forget your by-line.

Still Marketing Like We Did in 1890

Boy, are we full of ourselves, thinking that new terminology makes today’s Media Marketing  unique. Sure, technology has changed the tools we use, and the speed of delivery has increased, but publishers in 1890 employed similar tactics to grow circulation and sell advertising.

Cover wraps with ads are not neew

What prompts this post is that I came across an old copy of  The Youth’s Companion, though it might have been a supplement (aka ‘special section’, “downloadable asset”) because it was chock-full of house ads and self-promotions, including a complex subscription incentive program.

The Youth’s Companion was in circulation between 1827 and 1929, published by a Boston company called Perry Mason. (Wonder if that inspired the TV series by the same name…) This was perhaps the most prominent children’s magazine of its time and survived for more than 100 years before merging with The American Boy in 1929.

A little known fact – at least I didn’t know it – is that it was their circulation manager, Francis Bellamy, who penned the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892. Talk about great copywriting!  In an extensive direct mail campaign (probably never referenced as such), they sent leaflets to thousands of schools where the pledge was slowly embraced as the morning opener. Hmmm, sponsored content? In 1942, the pledge was officially adopted by Congress. That would probably be akin to a  high Klout score.

What struck me most in reviewing my 1890 copy is that it upholds the old adage: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”


Two Writings from a Retreat

As writers who produce on demand and on deadline, it’s important to restore the creative energy that inspires us. Sometimes a few days away can make all the difference.



The sad thing is, this happens every day — and I miss it. Somewhere between the time the night dies and the day is born, the Lake puts on a show. The strip of land that separates sky from water turns purple and the air above it turns pink… and the flat plane of reflection below morphs to match it.

Everything is rosy to start. All  is colored by a soft brush. Slowly, slowly the light changes and the dock catches fire with the glow of the sun. Then the dappling of the woods begins as leaves shift slightly in an imperceptible breeze: yellow, green, yellow, green.

The strip of land turns gray, turns blue, as the skywater pales and the pink disappears.

By now, small birds chirp loudly overhead, distant crows call, and the tremolo of a loon cuts through the still morning air. The reflection eastward is blinding.

Shadows form. Backlit ferns become translucent in the unfolding plot as a red squirrel skirts across a carpet of dry leaves.


Padding through pine needles, soft in the silent woods, we follow a new trail, but who are we kidding? These woods are venerable, old, and we can feel the native paths that run beside us.

There is great spirituality associated with the loon and legends that recount a gift given in return for its plaintive, guiding call. I look around to see if I can catch a glimpse of buckskin or moccasin, but I see nothing other than moss and lichen.

Listen — as the water laps dockside. You can hear the hum of a low-powered motorboat in the distance and an occasional splash of a fish breaking the surface.

Pointy leaves float against the sky that has fallen into the water.

Quiet. Quiet. There are no keyboards. My electronically bruised ears start to heal. Toes uncurl. Heartbeat decelerates.

Sweet pine needles in the woods cascade over rocks like a stream, rocks we know belong exactly where they landed some Ice Age ago.

Here in the woods, balance prevails, governing the play of light and shadow, the mix of solitude and the grand sense of belonging.  Nothing is harsh here. Edges are round where the lake curves; voices are hushed and dispersed.

Birds go silent as the sun rises. Steaming coffee courses through my veins.

The Lake beckons with its clear, cool water, but there is no rush today. This is my retreat  — at a time of transition.

Bee Sting

bees-on-asters-captioned-sm-c2014wordsonthefly As writers, we tend to look for parallels in life, but sometimes they find us. Lately my life has been filled with  bees – hardworking, pollen-laden bumble bees turning flowers into fruit in my garden — and cartoony, symbolic bees, contributing gifts to the “honey fund” at a recent wedding shower.

But yesterday, I received 2 stings of a different kind.
The first one was physical – an unexpected piercing as I pulled English ivy from a fence, obviously disturbing a hornet’s nest and releasing a plume of angry critters. The second one was psychological – an onslaught of the emotional sort that was no less painful.

Both evoked words:

The first brought forth four letter words… words that were slow to form as I looked at the yellow jacket on top of my garden glove and realized it was related to the searing sensation in my forearm. The second evoked a crushing sadness brought on by words of the frightening kind… words that required re-reading multiple times as I learned about a writer friend battling Early Onset Alzheimer’s.

The assaults were similar but opposite in certain ways.
The first drew heat to the site of the sting as venom spread into a firm white mound around it. I immediately applied ice which soothed the area.
The second drew a chill around my shoulders at the thought of a strategic, gifted mind in the strangle-hold of this cruel disease. There was no source with enough heat to warm the wound.

I waited for the signs of anaphylactic shock after the insect attack. Fortunately there were none. My breath continued to be steady… no sweats, no extraordinary swelling — so I resumed my yard work, hardly worse for wear.  The second onslaught, though less visible, produced a paralysis that lingered until the next day when I could reach out to my friend and share my concern.

But isn’t life ironic?
Here is a wordsmith struggling to clear his thoughts so he can write a book and be a voice for others … and yet there are so many others with crystal clear thoughts but no voice at all. Ah, the power of a writer!

The pain in my forearm has since subsided, but the pain in my heart lingers. The first experience reminds me to be more careful before plunging my hands into a tangle where I have no visual reference. The second one reminds to be less cautious when approaching the tangle of life… to resist the urge to assess and postpone – and to just go for it.

Stings of either kind hurt.

I did make sure, as not to malign the honey-bearing bee, to verify the difference between a honey bee and a hornet (aka yellow jacket, aka wasp). The honey bee is “robust, hairy, and sociable.” Wasps are hard-bodied and not particularly nice. Bees live in well-organized hives; the hornet lives in nests or in the ground. Here are some sources that further explain: Difference in bees, What’s a hornet? , What’s a wasp? ; Do bees die after stinging?

While the soft-bodied honey bee does die after stinging, the wasp lives on. Why? Because when a bee stings, it embeds its barbed weapon into the flesh and can’t fly away without disemboweling itself. The wasp, on the other hand, is tougher and thicker-skinned, and its slick stinger (technically the ovipositor of the female), can be more easily extracted which frees the wasp for flight.

This source notes that there’s actually a word for the process: “The process of stinging and dying is called autotomizing and only various honey bees are susceptible, not honey wasps or yellow jackets.”

So to ponder some philosophical truths, is it better to autotomize (that is, make a bold final statement and then die), or make a less dramatic statement and be free to fly away? As writers, we can imbue our characters with either fate.

But as a humble human being, I wish my friend the best of both worlds — to be a bumble bee in order to sting the public with a book that is brilliant and deadly to a destructive disease — but to be a tough-bellied wasp so he can leave his mark and then fly into light.