Monthly Archives: November 2014

Assigning Stars to Books I’ve Read


After I started transferring my memoir reviews over to Goodreads, I had to go through another critiquing process: assigning the number of stars to each book. What goes into that analysis is different from writing a review. A review focuses on all the ways the reader (the reviewer) reacts to and interacts with a book. I can love the experience of reading a book without thinking that overall the book deserves the highest score possible, 5 stars.

Also, there are books I want to give a 4.5, but I don’t know how to do that. Do you have to assign a 4 or a 5? No halves?

And what does a 5 mean? Does it always mean that I think the book is the most engaging story? Not necessarily because some books aren’t about the narrative. Does it mean that the book has the most literate, well-crafted sentences? Often times it does mean that. But not always. I am using 5 stars to mean a book that I can see myself reading again, should the occasion arise. And a book I can advise others to read, without qualification.

It kind of astonishes me how stingy some people are when they assign stars to books on Goodreads. I suspect those people have never written anything themselves ;).

Here are some unexpected stars in nature:

And here:

Speaking of book reviews, I plan on writing one for Julia Scheeres’ memoir Jesus Land in the near future.

This winter I will complete my tutorial in the Stanford program. In the tutorial I will be working with an instructor who will read my whole book draft (the memoir) and give me feedback for revision. Researching the Stanford instructors I realized that I so wanted to work with Julia Scheeres, especially after I read her Jesus Land.  Oh, what a book! Imagine my excitement when I got the email saying that my request had been approved and that I get to work with Ms. Scheeres this winter!

But I have to go work on my draft which needs another year’s worth of work before it’s ready. And I only have until the end of December. Good thing we’re not having our Thanksgiving dinner today. Pumpkin pie Saturday!



Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Editing, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing goals

Poetry, Loss, and Grieving: A Guest Blogger Perspective

by Guest Blogger Carla  McGill

A few years ago, I saw Billy Collins (Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 – 2003) read his poems at a local university. I have read his poetry for many years, usually bringing out one or two from his many collections to read to dinner guests during an after-dinner drink. My second time seeing him read live, I knew enough to expect a few comedic moments, something I enjoy about his public presentations. This time, though, he spoke about death and loss, the major focus of much poetry. To emphasize his point he remarked that the classic anthology used in most universities, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, which typically contains between 1500 – 1700 poems in the regular editions, could be called The Norton Pamphlet of Poetry if we removed all of the poems that were about death and loss.

Quite a difference between The Norton Anthology of Poetry and a pamphlet

Quite a difference between The Norton Anthology of Poetry and a pamphlet

His words resonated with me, since I had written an elegy for my father, who died in 2009, and four years later, an elegy for my aunt who died on Thanksgiving Day of 2013, as well as other poems that elucidate the experience of profound loss. My first impulse, when trying to memorialize them both was to write poems that in some way illuminated and crystallized my memories of them. There are thousands of poems about nature, love, and joy, but why are so many more of them about loss? What is it about poetry that makes it an excellent configuration for deeply painful experiences?

Poetry does seem to offer us ways to envision our experiences from various and unusual perspectives. Poetry can allow us to express profound thoughts, philosophical musings, and significant moments in time. Other expressions can do something similar, such as photography, painting, and sculpture, but poetry involves language, and language is tied to our humanity in a specific way. We have things we want to express with words. Emotions, ideas, perspectives. The public persona is unseated by the poetic voice as it utters deeper feelings, sharper and more distinct images, more acute insights. It has been said by many that poetry reflects the unconscious and the world of dreams. When I write a poem, I do encounter new dispositions, surprising mental vistas, and sometimes emotional resolutions to inner dilemmas. When I read an engaging poem, I find myself enriched, as if I have been with an encouraging friend or a spiritual mentor. The pain of grieving seems particularly difficult to articulate, and yet its poetic expression can yield a kind of peace, a sense of having located a central inner place, a core level of being and feeling.

The anguish of loss is inevitable. Our loved ones die, our happy moments fade, and we age. As Mark Twain said, “When you’re born, you’re finished.” Perhaps poetry best expresses our feelings of loss because it provides a certain amount of delight even if the topic is unpleasant or disturbing. The sound devices that poets use, the rhyme or meter, and the imagery all provide sensual and psychological gratification. More importantly, the great body of poetry about death and loss tells us that we are all on the journey together.

Roland Barthes said much the same about photography in his book Camera Lucida. He mentions that all photographs retain a certain feeling of melancholy because the subjects of the photograph have been in a specific place at a specific time, and yet they are no longer in that place and time. Therefore, loss is at the heart of photography, and in some ways, it is also at the heart of poetry, which tries to express moments, singularities, epiphanies.

Poetry presents delightful and rewarding experiences, even while it expresses the worst that we can endure as human beings. What a gift it is.


I  earned my BA in English from California State University, San Bernardino, and my MA and PhD from the University of California, Riverside. My writing has been published in A Clean Well-Lighted Place, Westerners Journal, and Inland Empire Magazine. As a member of the Live Poets’ Society from 1991–2012 at The Huntington Library in San Marino, CA, my poems have appeared in three of my group’s chapbooks: Garden Lyrics, Huntington Lyrics, and California Lyrics.

Though I have occasionally done freelance work for a local magazine, I mainly write poetry and short stories, and I am working on my first novel.



Filed under Books, Essay, Nonfiction, Poetry, Poetry book, Writing

The Subject of Book Reviews

In September, S.K. Nicholls wrote a post on here about the similarities between a novel like her Red Clay and Roses and a memoir. I enjoyed her book so much and eventually wrote a review for it that I posted on Amazon. While I have no memoir review today, here is a copy of my Amazon review for S.K.’s book.

Once I started reading S.K. Nicholls’ roman à clef Red Clay and Roses, I had to be pried away from the book for work and sleep. Her masterful storytelling is ideal for this southern story that, like Faulkner’s, covers generations of customs and politics and changes. She explores the tragedies of racism and gender inequality with a firm hand and a warm heart.

We hear the story through different voices. The nurse who learns the secrets and mysteries of the past tells us the story of the present—what’s “become” of the past. Then the love story of Nathan and Sybil is told in 3rd person. And it’s an enthralling story of transracial love in a time and place where such love could only be destroyed.

My fascination with American local and regional history was only fueled by this book. The details, down to specifics about Sybil’s business, lend authenticity to the story and demonstrate the research that went into the writing of the book.

Once you enter the world of this book, no matter how difficult that world can seem, you won’t want to leave.

I also posted the review at Goodreads. It’s not a memoir, but I enjoyed the detour into fiction.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000031_00016]

I have a related question. OK, a few questions. What is the difference between Goodreads and Amazon reviews? When I write a review for a book, should I post it at both sites? Is there some connection between these two websites?

Although I had signed up for Goodreads a long time ago, I hadn’t really put any reviews up until recently when I decided to gradually copy my memoir reviews over there. But I feel so ignorant.

What do I really need to know about Goodreads to use it properly?


Filed under Book Review, Books, Writing, Writing Tips and Habits

The Other Kind of Migraine

For the last few days I’ve been reading layouts of my poetry book and going over the finishing touches of the cover design with the publisher. On top of that I’m being audited by our lovely IRS (what a waste of good writing time to go through all my old records) and I have to get my memoir draft finished in a few weeks.

No wonder I’m migraining. My migraines aren’t “regular” ones. In fact, (usually) they aren’t even quite headaches. Instead, they appear to be mini-strokes or transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), scrunching my face on one side. I get intense vertigo, which comes on instantly. And my body feels as if it weighs 10,000 pounds. Then I start throwing up. My limbs become very weak and tingle and/or become numb. I’m sure there are other symptoms, too, but as I said, I have been migraining, which leaves me for days and even weeks with a pretty bad case of brain fog. And weak limbs. Physical clumsiness.

In case you’re wondering if I take Imitrix, my neurologist says that people with “complicated migraines” can’t take migraine meds as they can be extremely dangerous. So I am stuck with being on a blood pressure med and, occasionally if I get an aura warning me, I can take an aspirin to try to head off an attack. Aspirin isn’t so hot for my ulcer, but the CMs feel so lousy I would rather aggravate the ulcer!

An aura can be little whirls in my head, as if vertigo is just starting. Dark spots in front of my eyes. The weak limbs, the clumsiness–in short, all of the symptoms but not as intense. I spend a lot of time avoiding triggers. My worst triggers are fluorescents and other lights which have a flicker, even if you can’t tell there is a flicker. I wear sunglasses and a brimmed hat whenever I am going to be in fluorescents.

Have you ever read Didion’s migraine essay “In Bed”? It’s really great, and I can relate to a lot of it. But it’s still not quite the same, and I have never read anything about complicated migraines, except web medical articles.

I didn’t get this form of migraine until I entered peri-menopause. Before that I had migraines that were never diagnosed. They started when I was a child. For some reason nobody realized what they were in those days–maybe because the vomiting was what they noticed. When I got them as an adult, they were misdiagnosed as “sinus headaches.” What part of “800MG Ibuprofin doesn’t touch it” and “all I can do is lie on my back with a mask over my eyes” didn’t my doctor understand?

Even after the complicated migraines began, they were misdiagnosed for quite awhile as TIAs. The first doctor I went to put me on Plavix to thin my blood and my eyes bled. Lovely. I went to another doctor who diagnosed me properly.

But I read something the other day about there being a possible danger of stroke for people with complicated migraines. And I admit that that terrifies me.

Have you ever had a migraine of any type?



Filed under Blogging, Essay, Memoir, Poetry book, Publishing, Writing

To Be Read as a Collection of Magic and Poetry

Michael Ondaatje, the author of The English Patient, wrote a memoir about his Sri Lankan family called Running in the Family.

The style of this book is quite different from other memoirs. The cover of my book has a blurb by Maxine Hong Kingston which calls what is inside the book “a truly magical world.” Since Kingston created her own magical worlds in The Woman Warrior and China Men, she’s a good judge of that. But Ondaatje’s book is not as tied to narrative as books by Kingston. In fact, the book has a few poems threaded throughout–and much of the prose moves beyond the lyrical to the truly poetic.

The book is very beautiful, and many readers have a very emotional response to the style of the book. When I began reading, I had the wrong mindset. I was expecting  a narrative. Big mistake. What I should have done was prepare myself by understanding that I would be reading a collection of magic and poetry.

The book is not tied to narrative or history. If a reader doesn’t know anything about Sri Lankan history or the racial structure of the country, she will miss a lot of what is going on–will, in fact, get the wrong idea about a lot in the book. But if the reader does know, what Ondaatje does so very well is to create the mood of a long gone time and place. In that way he is very Fitzgerald-ish.

My favorite parts of the book are the magical realism story of his unique grandmother who walked into a flood and the poem “The Cinnamon Peeler.” Here is a little taste of Ondaatje’s style with his lovely descriptive abilities and his dysfunctional relatives:

Only the mangosteen tree, which I practically lived in as a child during its season of fruit, was full and strong. At the back, the kitul tree still leaned against the kitchen–tall, with tiny yellow berries which the polecat used to love. Once a week it would climb up and spend the morning eating the berries and come down drunk, would stagger over the lawn pulling up flowers or come into the house to up-end drawers of cutlery and serviettes. Me and my polecat, my father said after one occasion when their drunks coincided, my father lapsing into his songs.

And now I will admit I have not yet read The English Patient. Or seen the movie.

What I learned from this memoir is that memoirists are free to cross boundaries–even into fantasy and poetry.



Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

Let’s Talk About Writing Process

Sherri Matthews who writes A View From My Summerhouse tagged me to write about my writing process.  She wrote about her own here. Sherri’s very welcoming blog shows her wonderful personality, her stories, and her photographs. I particularly love the way she crosses the pond by writing about her life in the UK and her experiences living in the US.Sherri

Sherri discovered her true calling to write three years while supporting her daughter through her diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome.    Since then she has had articles, poems and a short story published in magazines and two anthologies. She is writing her first book, a memoir telling the story of her three years spent with her American G.I. and the catastrophic events that changed both their lives forever. A born and bred Brit, Sherri moved to California in the mid 1980’s where she raised her three children for seventeen years.  Returning to the UK after her marriage broke up in 2003, today and happily remarried, she lives, writes and takes endless photographs in the West Country of England with her hubby, daughter, two cats and an African Land Snail called Vladimir (her daughter’s). Sherri publishes regularly on her blog, ‘A View From My Summerhouse’.

You can read about Sherri’s memoir book project here.

Writers meme

When I agreed to be tagged by Sherri, I had forgotten that I already wrote about my writing process last spring. At first I thought, why bother to think about this again. But after reading what I wrote at that time, I realized that a lot has changed. For that reason, I thought I’d think about the process again. Also, I wrote a lot about blogging at that time, but today I’ll focus on my other writing

1. What am I working on at the moment?

Last spring I was putting together my full-length poetry manuscript and working on my book-length memoir.

Since then, my poetry collection Doll God is being published by Aldrich Press. I finally started thinking of poetry beyond the book and began to write a series of poems based on old family photographs and the results of my genealogical research. Maybe I’ll collect them into a chapbook, eventually.

However, I just heard from the publisher of Doll God. Kelsay Books plans to put the book out earlier than expected! Perhaps mid-January. I’m getting excited, but I’m also getting too nervous.

I started working on short memoir pieces to send out. A chapter of my memoir was published here. Several other pieces are in various stages of completion and two have been submitted to magazines. Since I’ll be working on my memoir during my Stanford University certificate tutorial this winter, I will have to set aside the shorter pieces.

2.  How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I wasn’t given this question last time. It’s a very difficult one to answer because I haven’t looked at my own work with the analytic eye necessary for that. Instead, I write by instinct, using my own individual voice, experience, and outlook. I’ve been told often enough that I’m a little bit of a nut or that my view is “idiosyncratic,” so I’m pretty sure that means that my take is a little different. But I’ve also been told that my experience resonates with others, so maybe everybody is a little different, a little “nutty.”

My memoir is a story that is specific to me and to my family, but it has commonalities with the lives of many other people. It’s an emotional history of a family.

My poetry springs from the interaction of heart and head.

3.  Why do I write what I do?

I write poetry because I love to play work with language and see a poem take shape that is more complex and rich than what I envisioned when I began.

Why memoir? Because I am writing a burdensome history out of my body. Once it is shaped on the page, I no long have to carry the burden. The more well-crafted it is, the better job I’ve done at moving away from the raw material. Additionally, I am learning (in a therapeutic sense) how to recast my history in a light that feels healing.

4.  How does my writing process work?

The process I go through is the same as it was last spring:

For prose, I write in Word, one scene at a time. When I feel that I’ve taken a scene as far as I can at that moment, I put it away and move on to another scene. But I always print out drafts, revise by hand, and then make the corrections on the computer. I revise over and over and over again, often times for several little changes each time. It’s a big tree waster, but one I can’t seem to avoid at this point in my writing. However, I do turn the pages over and re-print on the other side.

Poems sometimes start out by hand, but in general, I don’t have an affinity for writing by hand and wonder how Jane Austin ever did it.

Process also includes what I do once I’ve taken a piece as far as I can. I do like to have a trusted reader read my work. My in-person writing group–Rudri at Being Rudri and Renee at Unpacked Writer–give me great feedback on where to improve and what to rethink. I have another long-time friend who is a fabulous writer and editor who is also a fabulous reader. These women help me bring my prose to completion. I wish I had friends who were this reliable as poetry readers, but I have not been as lucky in that genre.

I would like to introduce my three  four (rules are meant to be broken) nominees who will post their responses to these four writing process questions on their blogs. 

First up is American Ellen Morris Prewitt, an award-winning fiction writer. I love her stories. She’s recorded many of them in audio format, too, and listening to her read is quite the experience. She has a southern accent and a sort of deadpan delivery. What a delectable combination! Have a listen here.

Here’s a description of Ellen’s fascinating life right from her own distinctive southern voice:

My life has been shaped by two very early events: I was born into the racism of the civil rights South, and I carry the grief of my daddy being killed by a train. Much of my writing carefully picks at the nuances of racism, and many of my stories involve the child trying to understand the space left by a missing parent. The two jobs for which I’ve been well-paid are lawyering in Jackson, Mississippi and walking the runway in Memphis. I follow my own peculiar definition of God, which led me to start a writing group of men and women who have experienced homelessness. I love all the people in my life but mostly my husband, my dog (yes, she’s a person), and my two grandbabies. I’ve been known to appear in public in costume.Ellen

Ellen blogs at under the tagline “Ellen Morris Prewitt: My Very Southern Voice.  In addition to Ellen’s skillful and engaging stories, I love reading Ellen’s posts for their heart and inspiration. Her work with the homeless is so important.


Next up is my Canadian buddy Sue Fletcher aka Menomama3. Sue writes two blogs.  I’ve been reading her first blog since I started blogging. She’s got a great voice and wonderful sense of humor–and I think eventually she will need to start sending out her memoir pieces. What she shares on her blog are wonderful stories and observations. This is what she says about herself:

Here’s a confession: When people read and comment on something I’ve written, I am thrilled to bits. But I also blog because it feels good to explore what’s in my head and work it out through writing. In a way it’s like taking your clothes to the dry-cleaners. Inside the closet they looked kinda dingy and lost among all the dresses and blouses and skirts and slacks. But when you show them the light of day and look at them one at a time and give them a good cleaning they look all new and fresh. Just like memories.

I call myself Menomama3 because when I started blogging four years ago I was deep in the throes of menopause, and my three daughters were like hormonal pressure cookers. Release was essential and writing was the form. Better than running away from home – me, not the girls.

Anyway, there are two Menomama3 blogs. “Wuthering Bites” is poetry, photos, and a few little stories. The other, “Life in a flash”, is an assortment of whatever comes into my head during dog-walking. Then I have to bolt home and write it down before I forget. Which I suppose is also what the blogs are about. Writing memories down before I forget.



Let’s go Down Under to meet novelist Dianne Gray.

Dianne is Australian author who lives in tropical Queensland, Australia. She has won numerous writing awards for her short stories and novels and is currently renovating an old club house she had moved to the family farm in 2012. She is currently working on three new novels which will be published in the coming months.

Dianne’s Freshly Pressed adorned blog can be found here. She blogs about her life on the family farm, as well as other aspects of daily living in rural Australia. Her resume is chockfull of book publications and writing awards.



Quite recently, I found Adrienne Morris’ blog. And I love it. It’s intelligent and quirky and always has something new to say about the past.

Adrienne Morris is a writer, living in the country, who milks goats, chases chickens and sometimes keeps the dogs off the table while writing books about the Weldon and Crenshaw families of Gilded Age Englewood, New Jersey. Her first novel, The House on Tenafly Road was selected as an Editors’ Choice Book by The Historical Novel Society.

You can find her blog, Nothing Gilded, Nothing Gained–Books & Writing at Middlemay Farm, here.

Adrienne MorrisEnjoy getting to know these bloggers if you don’t already read their wonderful blogs–and watch for their writing process posts!



Filed under Blogging, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing goals

Now I’m the One Who is Gobsmacked

What a bummer. A downer. I’m gobsmacked (thanks, Kate, for your recent post).

So. I finished reading the memoir A Family of Strangers by Deborah Tall. Just my cuppa, let me tell you. (No, gobsmacked and cuppa don’t come from Michigan, where I originate–or from Arizona either–but I like them). In this book, Tall, raised by parents who tell her very little about family history and who seem to have no living relatives, is driven to research her family and discover their origins. Her journey takes her to the Ukraine and what is left of her Jewish family in a very small village–so small it isn’t even a shtetl.

The writing style is that of a lyric essay–the text lives at the edge where poetry and prose meet. So there is a lot of white space on the pages. It means that Tall didn’t have to add little physical details and actions to conversations. She summarizes sometimes instead of creating scenes. The book is full of non sequiturs. Instead of traditional transitions, she structures the book into tiny chapters. She re-uses chapter names to create connections across time and space. I’m fascinated by this style of writing and would like to learn how to do it myself, although not necessarily for my book.

When I got done reading the book, I thought about how I would love to work with her, wondering if she teaches classes anywhere online. I saw that she was editor of the Seneca Review and wondered if my new poems were a good fit since they reminded me a bit of this book. I wanted to find her other books and read them. Above all, I really liked the character Deborah in the book.

Now I’m wondering if I should even tell you why I’m gobsmacked. After all, if I tell you, you will know when you read the book.  I didn’t know when I read the book.  OK, spoiler alert.  If you don’t want the spoiler, just go get hold of the book and enjoy.

Here’s an image so that nobody’s eye accidentally reads the spoiler.

A Family of StrangersAnd here is a photo of Tall to distance the spoiler even more:

Deborah Tall

Although there are hints in the book about a family history of cancer, near the end of the book, Tall learns that the type of breast cancer she has been diagnosed with is not hereditary. I was relieved for her two daughters and allowed myself to be lulled into thinking all was well. But it wasn’t. She passed away in 2006, at the age of 55, of inflammatory breast cancer–just after A Family of Strangers was published.

I feel as if I found a friend–and lost her–in one week.



Filed under Book Review, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Literary Journals, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

Memoir Writing Prompt: The Process of Discovery

One of my blogger BFFs is Sherri Matthews who writes A View From My Summerhouse. She recently tagged me in a writing process extravaganza. I eventually will take up the baton she’s handed me and write that post! In the meantime, check out her beautiful blog. If you aren’t already a reader, you will be!

I did a poll a while back asking about the best days for me to post from the standpoint of readers. The vote was overwhelmingly to keep the days the same: Mondays and Thursdays. I plan to do that. I am going to be hunkering down and getting more work done on my memoir now because my tutorial at Stanford is scheduled for winter quarter. (How will I EVER get a draft finished in time?!) I’m not sure if I’ll be able to continue memoir reviews throughout this period, but hey, I could write reviews of individual poems or flash prose ;). Know that I want to keep writing the book-length reviews, but it won’t always happen. I need to keep my own book front and center throughout the winter.

Are you thinking that you might want to write a memoir some day? Or write down something that happened to you years ago? Are you already working on a memoir?

If your story involves either your nuclear family (now or then) or your childhood, I have an idea for some helpful pre-writing.

We have our stories in our minds. We know what people looked like, what our homes were/are like, inside and out, our neighborhoods, our schools, our workplaces. But when we go to write our stories, we forget that the reader isn’t privy to all this information. And we overlook what might be some of the most revealing parts of our stories. The prompt I thought up is a way of remembering those little forgotten pockets of information. Everything you write from this prompt won’t wind up in your completed manuscript, but I think of it as a process of discovery.

Envision the home where much of your interactions with family members took place. For each room of the house, write a very descriptive piece showing an event that occurred in that room. Don’t forget your brother’s bedroom, the basement, the bathroom. Every room.  Include specific details about the room.

What discoveries do you make?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing prompt