Have you ever decided to become an expert at something, only to find out the more you spend time doing it, the less you actually know about it?
In my earlier years, I was a visual artist. For most of my childhood, I expressed ideas through drawing and painting. My first degree was a BFA in Fine Arts. But after college, real life intruded, and I had to make money. My creativity was expressed in clothing displays and sale setups. I continued to draw and create intaglio prints at the local community college.
Then came motherhood. My creativity emerged in birthday cakes and scavenger hunt parties. My creative genes were passed down to my youngest, who although she drew and painted, she preferred photography and video.
When the retail industry choked after 9/11, I went back to school to become an elementary school teacher. In my classroom, my creativity generated bulletin boards and diagrams of the water cycle. When I took on the after school musical theater program, I created backdrops and sets.
After my husband suddenly died, writing became my comfort. I could write about my characters’ struggles and pain easier than my own. Although I’d always written short stories, I had my heart set on novels.
How hard could it be?
Years later when I retired, I imagined I would crank out novels every year to make up for all those earlier years with no time for writing. My short stories appeared in anthologies. I got my first writing advance ($15).
After I finished three novels, I began to send out query letters and sample chapters. My heart was set on traditional publishing, so I knew I needed a literary agent. As the form rejections rolled in, I realized I didn’t know as much about writing as I thought I did. It wasn’t just about having a great story idea. I was responsible for creating character arcs for all my major players, as well as the villain. Novels had to be divided into acts and move at a certain pace. Forget the glorious description of the setting. You needed to blow things up.
How could I get better?
I took classes. I attended writing conferences. I hired editors. But the most helpful step was joining a critique group. It would take a long time to go through my novel in a critique group, but it was well worth it. After three years, we finally reached the ending of my novel. My faithful critique group tore it to shreds. They had permission to do so, as they had lived with my story for a long time.
Who knew endings were so hard? I made some corrections and resubmitted to my group. Still it wasn’t enough. Or rather it was too much. Apparently, I had another entire novel embedded in it.
I can’t help it if I keep coming up with new great ideas.
After much soul-searching, I now sit in front of my laptop, cutting chapters and characters, trying to salvage my novel. I’ve learned a lot. My next novel will be so much better.
As of this date, I haven’t deleted this story yet. The revision process may be painful, but it is a good teacher. You can read all you can about how to write, but in the end, you have to go through the process yourself.
And blowing up the ending of your book is a great way to learn.
Writers often complain about finding more writing time in their day. As a retired teacher, I thought I would have endless hours to type on my laptop, scribble outlines into notebooks, or muse about new story ideas. Instead, my schedule filled up quickly. I have heard it said, and now understand: “I am busier now than when I was working full-time.”
So I returned to my old writing time. It’s hard to turn off the alarm at 5:00 am and jump out of my warm bed. I’m not working. Why would I get up so early? I’ll admit sometimes I’ve hit the snooze button and gone back to sleep. But when I got up and grabbed my coffee, I’ve never regretted it.
Early morning. The perfect time to write. It’s so quiet I can hear my brain work. My husband and dogs are asleep. No daylight beckons me to go outside. Too early to do laundry or mop the floor.
My mind is a blank slate, not yet overloaded with the day’s problems and responsibilities.
Ideas flow. Possibilities seem endless.
Getting up that early may not work for you. You may prefer the dark hours of the evening. But the idea is the same.
Find the quiet hours in your day and use them for writing. You will find there is great reward gained by writing in the dark.
When I was young, Halloween decorations came down November 1st, but Mom left up fall leaves and pumpkins. She added a cornucopia with gourds on the table. Before Santa Clauses set up their chairs in the local department stores, there was a holiday for sharing a feast with your extended family and being grateful for your many blessings.
This year, as soon as the tombstones, skeletons, and jack-o-lanterns were packed up, red and green lights appeared on the houses in my neighborhood. Did I miss something?
Now more than ever we need to be thankful. Over the past two Covid years, I have lost family and friends to the virus and other causes. Many of us have attended more funerals, some virtual, than we ever have in our lives.
A reason to be thankful. We are still here to gather with family and friends, eat turkey, watch football, and savor pumpkin pie with mounds of whipped crème.
We all have our own reasons to be thankful.
This is my first year as a full-time writer. Thanks to a generous retirement incentive from my school district, I was able to retire early in May. This is the first time in my life that I haven’t had to balance a paying job with my creative passion.
My youngest daughter had twins this year. I am so thankful to have time to spend with them. More time than I ever had when I was raising my own children, part of that time as a widow.
My husband and I have six children and nine grandchildren. We are both so thankful that none of our children lost their jobs during the pandemic shutdown. Our grandchildren are healthy.
When we quiet our hearts, we can find thankfulness. Being grateful gladdens our hearts and silences our complaints. Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. I’ll have Christmas music blaring through the house after next Thursday. But before we rush out to buy those perfect gifts and unwrap the presents under the tree, shouldn’t we start first with grateful hearts?
“I’ll write that book someday,” she said after sharing her story with friends over coffee.
“You really should,” they agreed.
Years went by. Her work was busy. The kids had sports. The laundry basket was overflowing.
“You should write a book about that,” her husband said when she shared her story over a glass of wine.
“I know, but this week we’ve got to get ready for camping.” She started writing her checklist for their trip.
Years went by. The kids graduated from high school. She thought there would be more time to write. Her husband got sick, so she spent her days taking him back and forth to the doctor.
I’ll write that book someday, she thought. Maybe when I retire.
Years went by. Her husband got better. The kids had their own kids. Both she and her husband retired. She thought there would be more time to write but her kids needed someone to babysit the grandkids.
I’ll write that book someday, she thought. Now I have all the time in the world.
Years went by. The grandkids went to school. Her husband passed away. Her eyes grew weak, and her hands hurt. It was hard to type on her laptop.
I will write this book, she thought. And even when it was hard to focus beyond her pain, she wrote and wrote and wrote.
Years went by. When she finally held the finished novel in her trembling hands, she couldn’t even read the words on the pages.
But she was full of joy because she finally wrote the book.
No one ever visited the old crone who lived deep in the heart of the forest. The miller’s wife said she was a witch. The blacksmith’s wife told everyone she was mad. The local priest insisted that she was a wise woman with knowledge about herbal remedies, nothing magical.
The crone’s name was Circe, meaning “little bird,” which is how she lived, hidden under the trees. Upon her arrival she had claimed a tiny stone cottage, built and abandoned by unknown persons long ago. She made it hers as she swept the hearth, tucked straw into holes around the window, and planted wildflowers around it.
Circe wore her waist-length black hair twisted and braided around her head like a crown. Even though she could feel the wrinkles on her face, her hair’s glossy raven color never faded. It was an unconscious magic that she couldn’t control. If she had chosen to practice her magic, she would be able to hold on to more of her youth. But she hid away from magic as well as people.
They both brought pain.
The crone knew how to take care of herself. Her skill with bow and snare provided her meat, along with vegetables she grew in her garden. In exchange for herbs, the blacksmith’s daughter, Anna, brought Circe whatever else she lacked. Her innocent smile and sparkling eyes reminded the crone of herself when she was very young.
Every day the crone strolled through her forest home. The dark green canopy allowed only speckles of sunlight to dot the carpet of brown leaves. The trees were close together, so she had to wind her way around them. The branches whispered greetings to her as she passed. With a hand on the rough, gnarled bark, she whispered her thanks that the forest provided murderers with peaceful exile.
Many years ago, she had lived in the nearby village, before any of its current residents had drawn their first breath. In those days, she was recklessly beautiful and gave herself freely to any young man she pleased. This did not make her popular with the women in the village.
Thomas, one of the village elders, pleaded with her that she should settle down and marry. Circe smiled at his grave face and agreed. It was time to start a family of her own. Mother gave her books and seedlings to nurture her magic. Warned her to only use it for good.
A raven’s cry brought Circe back to the present. That was good because she didn’t want to dwell on what happened next. The laughing young man she married became an angry jealous man who left marks on her. He told the men at the pub that he had married a witch, and the reason they had no babies was because his wife slept with demons. A ridiculous notion that may have been concocted to protect his tumorous pride.
One night her husband came home with murder in his eyes. As usual, she brought him his stew which he ate in front of the fire. He roared out insults and grabbed his walking stick. Before he could strike her, Circe quickly spoke words of power. Her husband cried out, fell to the ground, and turned into a rat. With a broom she swept him out of the cottage. Then she packed up a basket and left.
Circe wasn’t sure where to go. Her magic was tied to the land of her birth. She could not simply leave on a ship. If she traveled to the next village, someone would find her. She would be dragged back and hung on a tree. Although her husband had been an evil man, transforming him without his consent was against the covenant she and her mother signed. Why hadn’t she turned herself into a bird and flown away the first time he struck her? But what was done was done.
The forest called to her. She made it her home. For many long years, she lived as mundane, afraid to use her powers again.
When the crone arrived back at her cottage, Anna was waiting for her with red eyes. A wasting sickness had hit the village hard, and her older brother had been in bed for three weeks. Circe told her she could send some herbs, but she couldn’t go back to the village with her.
The disappointed young girl left with a full basket.
That night, the crone woke to the sound of her name. When she sat up in bed, her mother’s shade stood at the end of the bed with her arms crossed. Mother had passed over when Circe had first married and had never appeared to her before. Although she could see the kitchen table faintly through Mother’s body, she didn’t want to underestimate her power. Even though the shade didn’t speak, the crone shivered as Mother’s words flashed with anger in her mind. Then the shade disappeared, and she knew what she must do.
Early the next morning, she tugged on her boots and fastened her cloak. She loaded up her basket and left the cottage before she could change her mind. Mother was always right, even when she was dead. Even though the crone was ancient in years, her steps were quick. She reached the middle of the village square by twilight.
Anna was hauling water from the well, and almost dropped her bucket when she saw the crone. The girl led her to her family’s house behind the blacksmith shop. It was a fine house, two floors high and made of wood. She pushed open the heavy door and they walked in.
Anna’s brother, Gregory, was upstairs in the first bedroom. His sweat-drenched face was covered in red dots, and his arms, once strong enough to pound iron, were only skin and bones. Circe asked the girl to bring her a pot of hot water and some clean cloths. What could she do for this young man? Her magic had lain dormant for over two hundred years. Would it listen to her now?
When the water arrived, Circe mixed in some herbs, chanting under her breath. Anna watched her with great interest, for there were no longer any magic users left in their land. With the arrival of the priests, witches and wizards were driven away, to be replaced with prayer and medicine. But the village priest and the doctor from the neighboring village could do nothing to stop the terrible sickness.
Remembering what Mother had taught her, Circe used the cloth to cleanse Gregory’s face. As she wiped over the weeping sores, she spoke powerful words of healing and life. The sores disappeared, replaced by healthy skin. Anna ran out to find her mother in the market.
Gregory opened his eyes and frowned to see a strange old woman bathing him. Circe told him she was a witch and to lay still while she finished healing him. And yes, she’d seen a man’s nakedness before. She needed to cover all the sores with the healing water no matter where they were on his body.
When the blacksmith’s wife, who asked her quickly to call her Kathy, saw her oldest son sitting up in bed and taking some soup, she almost crushed Circe with a hug. The blacksmith had died some years ago, and Gregory had taken well to smithing. His work supported their whole family. And of course, he was a good lad, with his good years ahead of him.
The crone ended up staying for the night. The next day, word spread through the village, and she was busy going house to house healing those she could. Anna stayed at her side, her eager assistant. Circe ended up staying for two weeks until there was no more sickness in the village. Even the priest came by to thank her for her service.
Finally, it was time to go home. Anna had proved to be a diligent student and made Circe promise to make her an apprentice in the magical arts when she was old enough. The crone’s magical knowledge would not be lost at the end of her time.
The sunset glowed behind the forest as Anna approached. Her arms and legs ached from doing more magic in recent weeks than she’d done her whole life. The branches rustled with approval and rabbits stood peering with curiosity to see a powerful witch. Her stone cottage with bright red and yellow flowers looked finer than any palace to her. She started a fire, put on a kettle, and shook some of her herbs into her mug. When the water boiled, she reached out to take it from its hook above the fire.
Suddenly, she felt eyes watching her. She almost dropped the kettle when she turned around to find Mother’s shade standing there, glowing in the firelight. This time Mother’s face was smiling and covered with tears. She gave her daughter a curtsey worthy of a queen. Then she pulled something out of a small pouch at her waist. Mother placed it in Circe’s hand. A real, solid object. Her breath caught as she realized what it was.
A large black pearl broach. Mother’s favorite. It had been buried with her. With trembling fingers, she fastened it to the neckline of her dress.
The wind kicked up outside and blew her door open. Without trumpet or tambourine, the forest celebrated her victory over fear. Then she poured the steaming water into her mug. She sat down in front of the fire, the mug warming her hands.
ZAP!!! Boom! Tinkle! My grandmother’s favorite teapot hit the floor and broke into a million pieces.
Staring at my hands in horror, I realized the cause. It was happening more and more. My hands trembled as I swept up fine porcelain scraps and dumped them into the trash can. Last week, I set my sister’s cat’s tail on fire. The week before that, I was pretty sure I caused my other sister’s rash.
Practicing magic is a responsibility. That’s what our mother used to say when we were young witches. I can still see her furrowed brow, her thin lips set in a straight line. Strict but caring. I still miss her, gone all these years.
After she passed, I became the most responsible witch in our family. I washed our clothes, swept our cottage, and cooked stew over the fire. That’s more than my lazy sisters, Rose and Camellia, ever did. They were only interested in coming up with new spells.
For the first twenty years of my life, my spells were obedient to my commands. Then suddenly, after last Midsummer’s festival, magic started leaking out at inopportune moments.
Practicing magic requires control. Successful spells and potions were the result of focused intent and attention to detail. A pinch more lavender than required, and the entire village could fall sleep instead of easing one anxious mother into slumber. The village elders only accepted our family as witches because we pledged to do no harm.
If I couldn’t get my magic under control, I would lose it. Literally. The regional coven would show up and drain me of my magic. Without a trial. On the spot. And I would spend the rest of my life mundane.
Think. Think. How could I tame my magic? Maybe I was working too hard. Meditation. That would help.
Rose, my older sister, helped me set up candles and pillows outside under the willow tree. Away from anything breakable. Her eyes told me she knew what was at stake. We didn’t discuss it. Any talk about misused magic could draw the attention of the coven elders. They seemed to be everywhere.
I closed my eyes, settled into the goose down pillows, and listened to the birds warbling high above me. The breeze sighed through the willow’s drooping branches, tickling my face with the scent of wildflowers. The birds called out to one another, the same melody repeated over and over again, like an inappropriate tavern song stuck in your head.
Hard to meditate with that cursed chirping. Suddenly silence fell over me like a blanket. Small objects pelted me and hit the ground, some tipping over the candles. With horror, I realized they were dead birds. My stomach churned with urgency. I leaned over past the pillows to vomit on the grass.
If I didn’t want to kill my sisters and burn down the village, I would have to either move into the woods or have the coven drain my magic. I started to pack my bag when my younger sister, Camellia, came in from the garden.
“Where are you going, Violet?” she asked, her eyes wide. “Have you been called away on a quest for the queen?”
I didn’t want to lie to my sister, but I did anyway. “Of course, that’s where I’m going. I will miss you and Rose, of course, but if the queen summons me, I must obey.”
As I stood at the door with my bag over my shoulder, Camellia hugged me farewell. As she released me, there was a POP and a cloud of silver smoke. As the smoke cleared, a small black rabbit sat on the floor. Poor sister!
I ran as fast as I could down to the main road. I guess I could have stayed and tried to turn her back, but I didn’t trust my magic. What if I turned her into a fly and Rose swatted her with the broom? Rose would figure it out when she returned.
Where could I run to escape myself? I followed the road as day turned to night. Pulling my wool shawl closer, I worried it wouldn’t be enough. I mumbled a warming spell and felt its instant effect. At least that magic still worked.
A full moon guided my steps as I reached the northern woods. I ducked under its covering, following animal trails. A childhood memory tickled in my head. There had been an abandoned hut out here where a woodcutter used to live.
The humming of insects and scurrying of unseen creatures kept me company as I threaded through the trees. I did not worry about becoming prey as my protection spell would cloak me from sight and spell.
Then I saw it. Nestled near a rushing stream, a crumbling wooden shack. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and drew a picture in my mind. When I opened them, I saw a small, thatched roof cottage with a sturdy wooden door, one window on each side trimmed with boxes of bright colored flowers.
When I stepped inside, a roaring fire in the hearth welcomed me. With a sigh, I unwound my shawl and hung it on a hook by the door. I unwrapped the bread I had brought and set it on the table. I put the kettle on for tea and then sat down in a rocker by the fire.
What would I do now? Forage for food in the woods and stay away from people? I was no hermit. Then I saw a letter on the mantle. I got up and opened the seal, a butterfly symbol that looked like the one Mother used to close her letters.
Tears leaked down my face as I read:
By now, you have learned that trying to control your magic in
your own strength is futile. This is your first step toward
mastery. Your magic is strong, but you must remember
it is not your work but a gift from the Creator.
It was not given for your benefit, but for the benefit of all.
Now that you are here, away from your many tasks,
take the time to understand your purpose.
Then your magic will be under control.
With love and hope,
Carefully I refolded the letter, tucked it into its envelope and set the letter back on the mantle.
Mother knew I would reach this point. There still was hope for my future.
I would discover my purpose and learn more about the one who was really in control.
Pumpkin spice lattes are back. Halloween decorations dominate the craft stores. And in Southern California, it’s extended summer. Especially for teachers like me who jumped ship at the end of last school year. This is the first year I didn’t spend days setting up my classroom, organizing classroom supplies, and suffering through hours of staff meetings.
Next week, instead of sweating through triple-digit days sequestered inside with kids, my husband and I will be camping at the beach. We’ll walk our dogs, grill steaks, and watch the sunsets. I’m going to work on my latest book project until I run out of power on my laptop.
After 17 years of teaching (which in teacher years is 170), I’m writing a new chapter in my life. In my first years at college, I poured all my energy into being a visual artist. Then at graduation I was cast adrift in a world where creatives had few ways of earning a living. I went to work in retail buying, using my creativity to select season colors and magazine layouts.
After 9/11, I lost my job and became a substitute teacher. Then my husband died, and suddenly I was a single parent of three school age children. That led me back to college where I earned my teaching credential.
Writing children’s books was my new creative outlet. Seven years later, I found a husband that nourished my dreams. I joined writing groups and took classes. My obsession grew until I was up every morning at 5:00 am to squeeze in a few hours of writing before the day began.
Many years passed. My kids grew up and set out on their own journeys. Teaching kids taught me a lot. About hope for the future, and a passion for doing what you love. I gathered characters and stories like shells on a beach. Saving them for when I had time to write.
So here I am in my first year of retirement. Living life as a full time creative, writing instead of making art. My life is no longer fractured with conflicting responsibilities. I still get up early. Ideas flow in the quiet time before the day opens its eyes.
As I fall into more summer, more summer flows into me.
There is a delightfully disturbing book titled Little, Big by John Crowley. It tells the tale of a man drawn into a family that deals with fairies. Fairies are often referred to as the Little People.
One of the characters remarks that her world was big but became little. She used to travel, entertain, take care of her children. Her life was big. Then it changed. She stayed home in the country, her children grew up and started their own lives. Her life was little.
My world shrank as well. My husband and I used to travel often on our Harley and in our motorhome. We flew across the country to visit our kids. We spent a week in Hawaii for our anniversary. We entertained and visited friends often. Our world was big.
Then my husband’s auto-immune disease worsened. COVID 19 arrived. I decided to retire early from teaching to write children’s books full time.
Of course, during the quarantine, my world was little. For days, our car sat in the driveway collecting tree sap. We spent the days moving from room to room in our small home before ending up in the backyard. We visited family online.
Even after my husband and I were vaccinated and some of the restrictions lifted, I didn’t have many reasons to leave my house. I got used to having my groceries delivered. I got used to shopping on Amazon. I worked with my critique group on Zoom.
In this new little life, I was available. I could help my husband with projects around the house. I could help my daughter take care of her preemie twins. I could spend time training our border collie puppy. I could call friends and encourage them in these chaotic times.
Maybe that’s the way life was designed. First we’re big, and then we’re little. To quote Tolkien “even the littlest person can change the course of the future.”
If you’re a writer and having a hard time focusing on your story, it’s not surprising. As hard as I try to impose order on my daily life, personal plot twists keep popping up to thwart my efforts. But don’t worry—this is not one of those “doom and gloom” posts that no one wants to read. Instead, this is about how stories emerge despite the chaos around us.
Stories want to live, too. Even if our minds are swirling like hurricanes (hopefully not as we’re boarding up our windows), we can’t help creating a narrative. As we go about our normal lives, which now includes teaching to a screen several hours a day, a story begins impose itself over our concerns. A character emerges, braver than us, who faces our same problems but in space. Or in a world of magic. Or sometime long ago before Google Meets.
Soon other characters rise up to aid our main character’s quest to save their world and right its wrongs. Quirky friends that illuminate the main character’s strengths and weaknesses. Maybe even a potential romance, although our hero really doesn’t have time for that right now.
Just like us in the real world, our main character, who now calls herself Raylene, tries lots of different strategies to solve her problems, only to be stopped at every turn. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to deal with lagging internet connections. It’s the antagonist who has shown up, just to make things more difficult. The villain is product of our nightmares, armed with complete knowledge of her fears. We’re not sure how to help our hero because her paralyzing fears belong to us.
We could remain stuck like that forever, but Raylene has her own Samwise Gamgee, reminding her of who she is and why she is risking everything. They go on together, and suddenly a thought pops up that we should call that friend we haven’t hung out with for months because of the pandemic.
When our hero and her sidekick fail, unforeseen help comes their way, and suddenly the battle is back on. At the same time, we, the writers, are in the middle of our own battles, standing in line at the medical center, waiting to get your temperature taken, or grabbing the last bottle of Lysol off the shelf at the grocery store before an old lady with a cane beats you to it.
Finally, the fighting ends, the day settles into night and your mind calms. Raylene limps back down her mountain with her hair all askew and rejoins her friends. We reach the end of our day and realize that despite overwhelming odds, we made some progress. When we lay down on our pillows, we hope the melatonin we took will really help us sleep. Because we need our rest before the battles tomorrow.