Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What drives your writing? (12/15/12)

Featured writer: Milena Nast

Contributors this month:
Catherine Crawford
David Williams
Don Edgers
Linda C.Wisniewski
Sara Etgen-Baker
Susan Bono
Theresa Sanders

Driven by the Crazy?

by Milena Nast

Art and mental problems go together like peanut butter and jelly. Depression was really good for my writing abilities. Manic episodes were even better. Drugs and either state were excellent for my writing abilities. For most of my life, I was driven to write by feelings I couldn't express in speech. Despite a family tree laden with alcoholics, the anxiety plague, and one suicide, I kept my issues to myself, and writing was the only way I could get a release.

When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was ecstatic. I did not feel the way I thought other people felt, and to have someone else recognize that was a huge relief. I was offered medication, and I gladly took it, a decision no one in my family supported.

"What about your creativity?" My mother demanded when she found out I was on Lithium.

I think it's easy to be opposed to medication when you have never been in a situation that would warrant it, but I would have gladly traded any creativity for the chance to end my emotional rollercoaster ride. By the beginning of my junior year of college, I was either suicidal or manic 24/7. It was not sustainable. Losing my love of writing seemed like a fair price, but I never had to pay it.

Medication did not turn me into a sedated blob. It did not shut off my ability to express emotion. I finally live within the rational spectrum of emotion, and writing is no longer a painful catharsis. I am driven to write by a genuine love of language. And I don't have to be depressed to feel that.

I think internal pain brings many people towards creative outlets, but it doesn't have to be what keeps you there.

Or maybe I just haven't been completely cured of the crazy yet. Looks like I still have some writing to do…

Milena Nast is a student at Georgetown University. She has lived in Mexico, China and Egypt and one time stayed in Manhattan for a couple months when she interned for The New York Times... in the marketing department... writing Facebook posts...


  by Catherine Crawford

I think this question is really asking "What drives you to write?" The image I have is of someone or something cracking a horsewhip over my head. Many whips have been brandished in the life of this middle-class writer, by parents, teachers, and business bosses, to name a few. And when their urgings to write stopped, I had a whip inside that drew its power from my sorrows and insecurities and the fleeting quality of life itself.

What drives me to write today? New motivations and incentives are always bubbling up: The exhilaration of going somewhere in words and not knowing where I'm going: The luxury of just hanging out with words: The freedom to know what words can do when given a loose rein.

Worries that once made me scribble nervously have vanished like rats down a hole. Today I write believing my words are worthy of notice before they're printed (if they ever are). The fickle come-ons of immortality leave me cold. I write from a peaceful, receptive center that is, as many know, the special province of women.

Today, I write to discover what's sacred in my life. It's a lot of work, but it doesn't deplete me. Yes, seeing my work in print still gives me a thrill. But there's also the thrill of knowing I don't need a high literary profile to live a useful and profoundly happy life. Who would've thought I could be this happy with something like that?

“Heartbeat” and “writing” are synonyms in Catherine’s lexicon.
Email her

What drives your writing?

  by David Williams

Write for yourself and Write what you know. Well-worn maxims, passing useful, that set their own boundaries. Writing out of yourself is self-limiting; writing for yourself could restrict you to an audience of one. What would Shakespeare have achieved had he remained so confined?

Write for the market: an invitation to write in a rearview mirror. Looking closely at customer behaviour and opinion reveals, not the next big thing, but the last big thing. How can customers/readers desire what they don't know exists? An even bigger problem for products of the imagination than for, say, technology, which advances more by accretion than departure.

The product of aggregated opinion is cliché. Work predicated on the predicted must be predictable. Writing for ‘trend' or out of focus-group wisdom will produce the same old shade of grey thinly disguised in next year's colour.

Perhaps the best we can do is write for the seeker. Rather than analyzing trends or aping yesterday's successes, we should ask ourselves what is capturing the thoughts (stoking the anxieties) of humanity now and for the future. Our impulse forward is fueled by a sense of searching for something -- often ill-defined, sometimes intangible, nevertheless there. What is the object of that search; what can we say about the journey?

Such questions provide a motive force for research and can drive our writing. Addressing them can be more liberating than merely writing what we know -- edifying too, because the full-time writer, detached from a normal working environment, risks knowing less and less. Writing for the seeker provides impetus to find out what we don't know. Our efforts to answer the seeker's questions lucidly help shape our work and demonstrate our qualities to the extent we are able to define what was ill-defined, make tangible the intangible.

Of course seeker and writer may be one- - back to the notion of write for yourself - but the broader concept of write for the seeker offers possibilities on so many levels- - personal, interpersonal, societal, global, universal -- as well as a forward dynamic and a natural structural fit with the idea of the story or argument as a quest, a journey, an unfolding.

For me there is also a sense of companionship, albeit virtual, in the idea of writing for the seeker, a realised image of the reader as fellow-passenger on the journey, one for whom I have responsibility and must navigate to our mutual destination across all obstacles, working with a map that may be missing significant parts of the route, overcoming challenges on the way. I am the guide but, as in all good quests, neither of us could make it to the end without the other.

Finally (to throw the marketeers a bone) here is the commercial rationale. Bookshops, libraries, on-line repositories, are natural haunts for seekers of all bent and persuasion. If we have anticipated and successfully engaged with the objects of their search in the works we have created, they will surely find us there.

David Williams is from the North of England. He writes novels, plays, short stories and articles. Find out more at

Filling the Need

  by Don Edgers

I recall reading that Nathaniel Hawthorne, a devout reader, wanted to read books that would satisfy his reading appetite. He thought he could write better books than those that were available to him, so started writing to fill the need.

Over several decades of reading in various genres and fine tuning my interests to history in my lifetime, I discovered gaps of information, particularly in my region's history, that need to be told.

World War II occurred during my childhood and found hardly a mention in any books about what civilian life was like on Puget Sound. We had forts, shipyards and naval facilities in our "front yards," service members living in our houses, and Boeing built airplanes a few miles away.

When I started writing as an adult I still hadn't read any WWII books devoted to civilian life, so decided to fill the gap in information by writing An Island In Time: Growing up in the 1940s. The book centers around the war and its effect on civilians.

Our winter home in Seattle was on Magnolia Bluff, which overlooked Puget Sound. War ships leaving the piers in Seattle were sailing to do battles in the Pacific. Sometimes returning battle-scarred ships needing repair were towed to nearby civilian or naval shipyards.

Also, our house was about a mile from Fort Lawton where thousands of soldiers and sailors were housed before being sent off to fight. The men at Fort Lawton marched on a long street located near our house on their way to Pier 91 to board their assigned ships.

I could hear marching songs and cadence counting of soldiers and sailors which alerted me to head for the boulevard, the street the servicemen marched on from the fort.

When there was a smoke break, I'd go into action as a patriotic beggar. I'd don an imploring look on my face and ask, "Do you have any candy bars or gum I could have, or cigarettes for my dad?" I had a good deal going for quite a while, but I didn't exactly relish those war years, because I understood that if the fighting between countries lasted many more years my father, brothers and even I might have to join those marching down the boulevard.

When we drove by Pier 91 and a navy installation, there were anti-aircraft guns and searchlights placed here and there. At Boeing Field the buildings were camouflaged and all the hangers were covered with dirt. Concrete air raid shelters were scattered alongside the landing fields.

Once when we were on Highway 99 we got behind a long convoy of army trucks full of prisoners of war. They didn't resemble the villainous depictions of Tojo, Hitler or Mussolini on our dartboard. I realized American servicemen could be in the same situation in a foreign country.

Don currently lives in Port Orchard, WA which is within sight of the Bremerton Naval Shipyard. His website is

My, How You’ve Changed

  by Linda C.Wisniewski

People change. I believe almost everyone can, given the right nutrients: sleep, tea, vitamins, love. Like my mother and grandmothers, I learned to be quiet, a good girl, to swallow my words. "Don't get so worked up," my mother often said. She had all she could handle coping with the daily insults my father flung at her. My grandmother told her the same thing but in Polish, when my father cursed and made her cry, my sister and I cowering, silent: "Calm down."

My father got "worked up" every day. He was allowed; we were not. I kept a diary and poured my heart onto the gold-trimmed pages of a little blue book with its own little lock and key. It saved my life. If not for my writing, I cannot imagine what might have become of me.

All the women and girls in my family were quiet and good. The emotional aunt who sometimes raised her voice was "too excited." The aunt who finally lost patience and told her verbally abusive husband, my father's brother, to go to hell was committed to a psych ward.

I kept writing, went away to college, got married, had a baby, kept writing, became a librarian so I could work with books, bring them to people, help them find what they needed in words.

Soon I was asked to speak in public: at work, at conferences, at church services. People clapped, sent me notes, said they liked my words, my personality, my voice.

At a family wedding, I heard a whisper behind me. I leaned back to eavesdrop. "That's Linda?" she said, incredulous. I recognized a distant cousin who had not seen me in twenty years. Her voice rose. "My God, how people change!"

I lifted my head and tossed back my hair with one hand. Pride, joy, the satisfaction of being seen for who I already knew I was, filled me with light.

As a girl, I wanted to be invisible, to avoid the hurt of my father's words. But I yearned to be seen by my preoccupied mother, grandmother, aunts, teachers: anyone. I was too good to "act out" so I privately, quietly, wrote in my diary.

That persona was as wrong for me as the long-suffering martyr role was for my mother and aunt. Because they could not change, I will never stop. They had too much working against them: the feminine mystique, the 1950s housewife mentality, a church that glorified suffering. No vision, no help.

Because they could not, I will never stop changing, learning, growing, becoming more and more visible. I will never stop writing.

Linda C.Wisniewski is a former librarian who writes in Bucks County, PA, where she shares an empty nest with her retired scientist husband. Linda teaches memoir workshops at senior centers and writers’ conferences and gives presentations on the healing power of writing. Her work has been published in the Christian Science Monitor, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and other venues both print and online. Her memoir, Off Kilter, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. Visit her website and blog at

The Best Gift

  by Sara Etgen-Baker

On the surface, I write because it's what I love to do. I write because I can't help myself; writing is as much a reflex as breathing and equally essential. I write because it gives me satisfaction and a sense of completeness that nothing else can.

Writing also quenches my desire to create-—to transform the abstract lines and circles that represent the 26 letters of the alphabet into vivid, memorable experiences. During that transformation, images and words come; and stories are put together one sentence at a time.
What hits me during those transformational moments is not so much my own effort but gratitude for the wonder of the gift that is writing. All too often, words are just given to me. So-—during those moments when words seem so absent-—I remember that writing is a gift and remember to be grateful for it.

Because stories and books shaped my life, I'm also grateful for the opportunity to give back to the world that which was given to me. Ultimately, my giving attitude liberates me because I realize I can only give what I have at that moment. I don't necessarily have to be a brilliant writer or a best-selling novelist; I simply need to write and give from my heart. That is gift enough.

I acknowledge that writing-—in and of itself-—is an awesome gift and a beautiful form of art. I write because that's what I was meant to do. I write because painting stories with words is what I'm compelled to do. I write because-—hands down-—it's the best gift I can give the world and myself.

Sara Baker is a retired educator turned freelance writer. In addition to writing memoirs and personal narratives, she has begun writing her first novel. When not writing, she enjoys spending time with her soul mate, Bill, with whom she has been married 29 years.

The Mind’s Own Plan

  by Susan Bono

My mind is sending signals to my gut these days. I'm getting messages in the ache in my arms and in the way my right eyelid droops whenever I sit too long at the computer, trapped in the endless immediacy of email. It often puts me to sleep as I'm editing other people's writing or creates insatiable cravings for crackers and potato chips.

There seems to be no cure for the maladies my mind foists upon me, no way to alter its plan, which it has not chosen to reveal in its shining wholeness. I've had a few glimpses—but it's like the premature twilight that falls in the forest. The warmth of the sun and views of the wide sky are inaccessible to the wanderer in the tangled undergrowth. A sense of freedom and possibility is even less available to someone sitting in the brambles trying to answer email. The only way out of this darkness is to keep moving.

And so my mind moves me and my body to sort through old photos and letters and books and cookie tins, to thin out and rearrange the contents of closets. I move or remove trees and shrubs in my garden. I dig holes and plant lavender. I stand outside with dirt under my nails and think about nothing. I smile. My mind is letting me know it's all going according to plan.

Susan Bono is driving blind in Petaluma, CA.

For the Love of the Game

  by Theresa Sanders

Anyone acquainted with my family knows my husband is a huge St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan. Think over-the-top memorabilia collection. Think sit-through-hours-of-rain-delay man in the stands. To my hubby, it's all for the love of the game. And I do mean love.

On opening day 2012, he and I sat huddled together, waiting in water-logged anticipation for the first pitch to be thrown. It was one of those famous rain-delay games, and while we were relatively dry in our seats, rain had left puddles on the infield tarp, turned the sky to soot. Through the gloom, the one bright spot was the scoreboard, showing highlights of the Cardinals' magical 2011 World Series win. I happened to glance up just as a picture of our series MVP flashed on the screen, along with the caption: "Sometimes you have to believe to see."

Oh how true. How well that summarized 2011. We were a team no one bet on. We came down the stretch that September on a gasp and a prayer, kept alive by sheer passion and will. It really was all about believing.

In writing, too, we sometimes have to believe to see, especially when faced with obstacles that threaten to keep us from running the bases. Crippling self-doubt. Yet another rejection. Feelings of inadequacy about our work compared to the work of others. As writers, we necessarily must reside at the intersection of competition and craft, but if we aren't careful, we can let the hollowness of one-upmanship be what drives us rather than the wellspring of creativity. And whether that hollowness manifests inward, leaving us frustrated with our own offerings, or outward, projected onto other writers, it will zap us every time. Better to unleash our fine-tuned sensitivity upon a higher goal. I know I'm at the top of my game when I'm coming from a place of competing only with myself, of striving to do a little better each time I stroll up to the plate instead of focusing on someone else's big hit. Or in the words of Tiny Lights' astute editor, Susan Bono, if I'm so fixated on the goodies out of reach behind the glass at the candy store, I won't be aware that with hard work and determination, I can open the door and walk on in, enjoying the treats myself.

The truth is the world needs all our voices, no matter what we write. Short pieces or book-length, memoir or fiction, genre or literary, one voice isn't more important than another, just different. Yes, we can all get caught up in the pop of a well-placed home run, but it's often the steady sureness of a seasoned bench player that wins the day.

Sometimes we have to believe to see. Believe in the value of our own talent, wherever our strengths might lie. Believe in letting what drives our writing be a passion for words and craft, for people and their stories. It's all for the love of the game. And I do mean love.

Theresa Sanders lives with her husband near St. Louis, Missouri, where she focuses on…well, you know. Her submission was inspired by Susan Bono’s “Sure Signs,” in Tiny Lights’ Searchlights and Signal Flares, March 2011. Thank you, Susan, for your always wise and wonderful words!

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


C. Larson, B. Povich, M. Petty, C. Crawford, T. Sanders

Columnists Emeriti: Christine Falcone, David S. Johnson, Betty Rodgers, Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Betty Winslow

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer living in Petaluma, CA. She has published Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at She conducts creative writing classes in Petaluma and Santa Rosa and co-hosts the quarterly Speakeasy Literary Saloon at the Aqus Café in Petaluma. She's on the boards of Petaluma Readers Theatre and the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is still writing a postcard a day. Her most recent publishing credits include Petaluma Readers Theatre, KRCB’s Mouthful, Milk and Ink, and Passager Magazine.

Marilyn Petty is a dyed-in-the wool Midwesterner, a long-ago émigré to California and a fortunate resident of Sonoma County, CA. She taught weaving through the SRJC for 8 years and was the reporter, essayist, editor and publisher of the Redwood Empire Handweavers and Spinners Guild for 10 years. When not tangling with yarns, she is unknotting words, writing poetry and personal essays. She putters in the garden when words fail her.

Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, published two award winning chapbooks of poetry, and written articles for, a Portland, Oregon online travel magazine. She works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington. Her email:

Claudia Larson, in her childhood, wrote long letters to her best-friend cousin and enthralled herself by writing a heart-rending story of two orphans. She writes fewer letters nowadays and prefers writing poetry and memoirs of her North Dakotan farm girl days. She is not yet an orphan, has six siblings and lives in Sebastopol, CA.

Becky Povich lives near St. Louis, Missouri. Although not young in "people years," she's only been writing for ten of those. Getting her first book completed, a memoir, is her current short-term goal. She can be reached at, or visit her blog at

Theresa Sanders lives in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, where she is completing a novel. A former award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a Documentation and Training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. Her stories appear regularly in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Theresa welcomes email and would love to hear from you. Contact her at:

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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