Tag Archives: Writing process

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

You Did It

I experimented with something new in my writing. I wrote a poem and a story in second person. Everywhere I wanted to say “I did” this, I wrote “you did.” It’s not a point of view that would work for every piece–and it has to be used sparingly–but it really got me out of my writing ruts (craters, according to the mean editor in my head).



In the story, writing about “you” instead of “I” gave me that needed distance between the me of today and the me of 1979. The two women are barely the same person.

Here’s a sample from the story:

Not that long ago, you’d partied in your college town with a friend and her boyfriend, an ugly drunk. When he got you alone in the kitchen, he’d blown rum breath in your face and fingered your long brown hair, the hair you straightened with giant rollers . . . .

Here it would be in 1st person:

Not that long ago, I’d partied back home with a friend and her boyfriend, an ugly drunk. When he got me alone in the kitchen, he’s blown rum breath in my face and fingered my hair, the hair I straightened with giant rollers . . . .

There’s nothing wrong (in my estimation haha) with the second one, but writing in the “I,” I need to show more introspection and accountability for myself. In the “you,” I don’t need to do so and that forces the reader to read more sharply and pay attention more closely. For a short piece like this (500 words total), that’s the reading effect I wanted. Notice that I also felt funny about saying “long brown” about my hair. Too many adjectives about the self. But in 2nd person I can get away with it.

In the poem, experimenting with 2nd person added a mysterious layer that lends depth and texture.

In both pieces, the reader is approached more intimately and encouraged to participate in the birth of the piece (writing + reading = birth).

If you feel that you’re in a rut with your writing, why don’t you give it a try? Either write a story or poem from scratch in the 2nd person point of view (POV) or take an existing draft and change it. But when you revise into the new POV, be sure to keep yourself loose enough to make other changes as you go. Once you change POV you are changing the story in more ways than you can imagine.


Write a story or poem in 2nd person point of view. Or revise a 1st person story or poem into 2nd person.


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

Writing with a Side of Music

The other day I tweeted a question:  When you write poetry do you listen to music? Or do you find it a distraction? #poetry #music #writing. And by poetry I was thinking “writing.”



Since I have soooooo many twitter followers (huge winky face) I got back exactly, um, one response. This person said he listens to Mozart and Vivaldi for poetry writing.

That made some sense to me because I remember when I wanted to stimulate my first child’s creativity, I sent him to Suzuki class to learn Bach, Mozart, and Vivaldi.

I want to make good citizens. If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart.

But, even with The Four Seasons (Vivaldi) going in the background, I couldn’t write with music playing. Not poetry. Not prose. Nuttin.

Go ahead and try it yourself. Can you write to this version of “Autumn”?

How do people do it? My mind is going off with the music and not going where the poem wants it to go. It’s like patting my head and rubbing my stomach at the same time. Or running a marathon while I’m sleeping (or ever).  It just can’t be done–not by me.

So I tried to figure out what my writing habits are. They have developed over time. I grab whatever 30 minute block of time I can find, a piece of chocolate, and a soda (and you thought it would be tea?), and I start typing on the computer keyboard. Is that a good habit? I don’t know. I feel it was born out of desperation.

What are your writing habits? Do you write to music?

You can make my day if you follow me on Twitter here, by the way.


Filed under Art and Music, Essay, Poetry, Writing, Writing Tips and Habits

The Motif of Origins

I’ve always been fascinated by origins. In college, I double majored in marketing (to make a living) and history (motivated by that fascination).

When I was a kid, my own origins seemed clear enough on my mother’s side since I grew up in the same town her people had lived for a few generations. On my father’s side, “far away” in Chicago,  there were so many gaps and distortions and puzzle pieces that didn’t fit together.

As I finished my undergraduate degree and entered grad school, I realized that I didn’t really know nearly as much about even my mother’s family as I had thought. I focused my study on local Kalamazoo history and, ultimately, on my family’s history.

More recently, I’ve been writing my family history blog and trying to find answers to the many questions that arise.

  • What branch of the family was made homeless by the fire mentioned in a newspaper clipping I found in my grandmother’s papers? (Answer: the George Paake family–and I’ve made an acquaintance of a shirttail relation and been given copies of many family photographs and documents)
  • What happened to my great-great-grandfather’s sister Jennie when she left Kalamazoo? (Answer: she moved to Seattle with her two adult daughters. A kind stranger’s father found their scrapbook at the nursing home he worked at 20 years ago. After reading my blog, she has now passed that scrapbook on to me so I have beautiful photographs of these women in Seattle)
  • How many Van Liere siblings were there?  (Answer: 8–see photo below)
  • How many DeSmit siblings? (Answer: I don’t know yet!)
A photograph of Jennie with her daughters from the discovered scrapbook

A photograph of Jennie with her daughters from the discovered scrapbook

The VanLiere boys

Surprisingly, people who have found my genealogy blog have shared many photos and enthralling stories of my family.

My very first blog post on Writer Site, “The Study of Faces,” was about my feelings of connection to my ancestors.

While the search for origins in my book has nothing to do with the genealogy I focus on in The Family Kalamazoo, it is also motivated by a curious nature and a search for identity. Issues of inheritance, genetics, and rights to our own stories are part of the subject of origins.

How is it with you? Are you ambivalent or uninterested? Do you care about your origins? Are you obsessed with them?




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

The Motif of Curiosity

An important series in my book is curiosity. In fact, the 230,000+ words I’ve written (yes, I know it needs a lot  of cutting) and the dream of the book itself would not exist without curiosity–namely, my curiosity.

From the time I started reading Bobbsey Twin  books (like Nancy Drew but for younger kids) at age 5, I realized that curiosity was a constant flame inside me. If you aren’t familiar with these old books, the detectives are two sets of twins in one family–Bert and Nan, Freddie and Flossie. This series is so old that I grew up reading the books that belonged to my mother when she was a child.

My Bobbsey Twins collection

As a kid, I practically inhaled all the mystery series books I could get my hands on–mainly from the school and public libraries. Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Dana Girls, Judy Bolton, the Khaki Girls.  On and on.

In my early twenties I read every single Agatha Christie mystery.

Today I still enjoy mysteries, but I also am working on genealogy and my family history blog. The great thing about genealogy is that when the past gives up some of its secrets, it presents the genealogist with many more! The genealogy bloggers I’ve met are incredibly curious people.

All of this has been preparing me for writing my memoir, of course. Only I didn’t know it until recently.

When faced with secrets and unknowns, my recourse is to–well, what else?–PRY.

Are you a curious person? How has your curious or incurious nature affected your life?


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

The Motif of Shame

Last week I wrote about secrets, the central series or motif of the memoir I’m writing.  Sherri, from A View From My Summerhouse, mentioned the destructiveness of secrets and linked it to shame. This resonates with me because I’ve found that shame wells up in my story at every “low elevation,” like water pooling at a sandy beach. In fact, shame seems to drive reactions in my central characters far too often. That’s why it’s one of the 12 series of my book.

I never thought too much about shame until I studied Pia Mellody‘s 8 major emotions:

  • FEAR
  • PAIN
  • JOY
  • LOVE

Then I realized that not only is shame important and that I had been ignoring it, but that it was the creepy emotion. It’s the one that makes me feel . . . creeped out. Humiliation, regret, self-hatred, mortification, embarrassment, I could go on. There are so many words for these feelings. But no matter what, shame makes me feel YUCKY.

You’ve heard of the “it factor” that celebrities with charisma have? Shame has the ICK factor.

As a kid, my shame came mainly from two sources. One was my dad yelling at me where other kids could hear. Sometimes it was just that he was yelling in the house, and they could hear him. Other times it was that he would yell and punish me in front of friends.

The other source was when I felt embarrassed by being singled out or feeling that I was drawing potentially negative attention to myself, such as by wearing the wrong clothes. I hated negative attention and mistrusted positive attention.

Do you have memories about shame? Do they still control your life or not? Do you write about them?



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

The Central Series: The Motif of Secrets

According to the book architecture method, after determining all the series (repetitions) in her book, the writer must decide which is her central series–the main storyline will rest on this series.

My central series is secrets. A secret can be a painful wound at the heart of a family. What happens to a secret that doesn’t get any air? It festers and infects the entire body of the family.

The other side of the coin from secrecy is privacy. Aren’t people entitled to their privacy?

In my story, the protagonist (me, of course) tries to exhume the family secrets, but is also desperate to hang onto her own privacy with the family. Sounds sort of hypocritical ;).

Photo by Marisha

To give myself inspiration on the topic of secrets, I searched for quotes. These spoke to me as meaningful for my story:

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”
― George Orwell, 1984

Of course, it is impossible to hide a secret, once known, from oneself. The more I realize it’s a secret, the more it weighs on my mind. Therefore, one way or another, the secret will out itself.

“Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned.”
― James Joyce, Ulysses

I envision secrets just this way–heavy and controlling with their silent power. They want to be kicked out of their thrones, uncrowned, but we let them tyrannize us and those close to us.

“You cannot let your parents anywhere near your real humiliations.”
― Alice Munro, Open Secrets

I learned early to protect myself from my family by developing a thick wall. That was my way of secret-keeping.

“Secrets have a way of making themselves felt, even before you know there’s a secret.”
― Jean Ferris, Once Upon a Marigold

Although this quote doesn’t come from a weighty tome as do the other quotes, it is so fitting for my story. From before my birth the secrets existed, so I grew up under the weight, the tyranny, of the secrets long before I finally realized they existed.

Have you written about secrets in your family?

P.S. Those of you who were commiserating with me about my old cat Mac who has a bad heart and was diagnosed with diabetes: I got his glucose down with a diet change. So he doesn’t need insulin for now!

If you have cats, think about switching to high quality canned food. I did hours and hours of research and now wish I had done so years ago. If you want to know more about the results of my research, email me at writersite.wordpress[@]gmail[dot]com.


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

The Motif of Fear

I wasn’t surprised to discover fear is a pattern that repeats itself throughout my book. A twin of anger, the series I wrote about last week, fear controlled much of my childhood and teen years.

Although, for the most part, I learned to fear because of the anger of others, fear invaded all aspects of my life. In this rough passage that takes place when I am in first grade, I am almost “paralyzed” with fear of the dog that lived across the street from my house:

The chow wasn’t giving up, and my stomach began to clench as if it were pressed in my father’s metal vise. I sank onto my knees on the dirt drive, small stones digging into my skin, wedging between the lips of the cuts and scrapes I’d gotten riding my bike too fast. Dear God, make the lady call him inside. I bit the inside of my cheek and was soon sucking on iron, as the taste of blood flooded my mouth. Eventually time collapsed on itself, and I ceased recording it in my head. I sat and sat, alert to the barking.

Fear is something I know. As an adult, fear became anxiety, which comes with specific symptoms like tingling limbs. I know what makes me afraid. What makes me anxious is more mysterious.

Fear terror eyeHave fear or anxiety ever controlled your life? Do you find fear tied to anger or is it unrelated? Or are you a particularly fearless person? What made you so?



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

The Motif of Anger

In my post A Baker’s Dozen, I listed my book’s series, or repeating patterns. Last week I talked about the motif of Scrap. Today the subject is Anger.

The thread of anger that is sewn through my story is often my father’s anger, but anger tends to spark anger, so I have had plenty of my own.

A famous quote by William Blake about anger goes like this:

I was angry with my friend:

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

What I take from these lines is that if we express our negative emotions, they can’t grow inside of us.

Writing has that same effect. I find that when I write about something difficult or emotional, once I finish the piece I am writing, I am relieved of the burden of the negativity.

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When you’re angry, do you find that writing or expressing yourself artistically helps? Or do you confront the person you’re angry with?

No point in photoshopping Tiger’s angry eyes


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

The Motif of Memory

This week the series is memory. 

Memory is an obvious necessity for any memoir, but it takes on a particular function in my story.

Memory, and its enemies denial and forgetting, is at the root of what my story is about–discovering what has been denied and repressed.

Following the book architecture method, I wrote a sentence about the role of memory in Scrap: 

The protagonist’s memory and curiosity are irritants and counterpoint to the father’s secrets and the mother’s denials until the father’s memories are released and the central secret revealed.



To complement the discoveries my protagonist makes, in some scenes I am experimenting with a style that shows the process of memory recovery.

To what extent do you use memory in your writing?


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