Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What's the best gift you can give a writer? (11/01/06)



Featured writer: Jordan E. Rosenfeld



Contributors this month:
Arlene L. Mandell
Bonnie-Jean Kimball
Charlene Bunas
Claudia Larson
Dan Coshnear
Jo Lauer
Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Kate Douglas
Ken Rodgers
Marylu Downing
Mimi Ghez
Paula Matzinger
Rebecca Lawton
Susan Bono


The Best Gift for a Writer?

by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

The best gift you can give a writer is to stand as sentinel at the gateway of your writer's solitude, to badly paraphrase Rilke. While this not something you are liable to purchase at Target, and it is most certainly never discounted, and if you find it in the bargain bin you should be honest enough to inform the management—it will secure you a writer's undying affection. For awhile.

If that is not your style, you can attempt to bring lovingly wrapped fountain pens and blank journals with silky paper but your writer generally already has the tools of the trade. What they would prefer is that you come instead with your hands cupped around a shard of story, a little chunk of your own heartache or soul wounds that you're willing to share. Then, sit quietly with your back against the door of that writer's space until they creep out, weary and exhilarated. Do not expect gratitude.

You can always bring the gift of an ear, being sure never to laugh at your writer unless you have specifically been asked to. Though be warned: a writer in a fit of mood might ask for your opinion and then use it to bludgeon you over the head with if you should give one they're not expecting.

If none of those gift options pleases you then the best gift you can give a writer is to act not as sentinel, but as bodyguard against the judgments of peers and family who demand to know when the novel will be done, when the screenplay will sell, and when "those little poems" will finally earn them a decent living. If you can protect your writer from these sharp-tipped and uncaring barbs, you will assure yourself a permanent place in their life. You may even be immortalized in their work.



Jordan E. Rosenfeld receives her greatest gift of time to write in the silence of her Morgan Hill office, which is farther from Petaluma than she would like. Her cat Figaro, when not in protest at his new diet, stands sentinel while her psychologist husband has the role of bodyguard. Just about every family member has been immortalized in her work.





Arlene L. Mandell



The best gift for a writer standing before a small audience: Listen. Just listen to the words the writer has struggled to place on the page. She is trying to tell you something that comes from her heart, her brain, her blood. You don't have to say anything in response. Nod if you understand. Stay quiet if you don't. Think if there's some connection between her story and your own. If there is, speak to her, just a few sentences. If not, smile and be on your way. Thank you for listening.





Arlene L. Mandell occasionally reads in public. Her most recent performance was at the final night of Soho. She'll be appearing soon at the new Petaluma venue for LiveWire: Bricks.


Bonnie-Jean Kimball



I KEEP TELLING YOU: THE BEST GIFT FOR AN AUTHOR IS MONEY.



Bonnie-Jean Kimball knows what she's talking about in Windsor, CA.

Charlene Bunas



A royalty check.



A Santa Rosa writer, Charlene Bunas remembers such a check. She admits to the joy of buying early morning coffee with her earnings.

Claudia Larson



Give me food that's healthy, hearty and time to eat it. Give me a soft, comfortable bed with cotton linens and enough time to sleep in it until I'm rested and dreamt awake. Give me an ear to hear that moment's experience until I'm softened enough to feel my bones. Give me your voice until I feel the invisible connection called humanity. Give me humor and give me sadness. They speak for themselves.

Claudia Larson is speaking for herself in Rohnert Park, CA.

Dan Coshnear



Best gift you can give a writer? A debilitating childhood illness. Short of that, impossible homeliness. An embarrassing speech impediment. But, you ask, what if you meet this writer later in life? What if he sailed through his developmental years like a series of homerun balls? What if she hurdled the adolescent pitfalls ever assured of her self-worth? Try a one way ticket to Siberia. A mock execution. Many writers benefit from deadlines, but rifles and a blindfold can really work wonders.


Dan Coshnear continues to write in the face of his own adversities in Guerneville, CA.

Jo Lauer



I'd love to say something pithy about the best gift you can give a writer being inspiration, or a well-tuned critical ear, or maybe undying loyalty, or indefatigable support. In truth, I'm much more pragmatic. A new ink jet cartridge and a ream of printer paper sets my heart a-flutter. Tools...hands-on tools, that's what I need most. As the cartridge line drops into the "low" register on my printer screen, I experience moments of word-constipation. Expansive, free-flowing, oceanic thoughts turn to a late Autumn creek trickle. When I'm down to my last fifty sheets of paper, I find myself editing, tightening those sentences, conserving for a later, more abundant day the colorful descriptions, the word-plays, the sending out of sample chapters, and the submissions to countless contests. Yep, a new cartridge and a bunch of paper and I'm a happy camper. I can then, as we said in the sixties, Write On!


Jo Lauer is a writer and psychotherapist in Sonoma County.

The Best Gift for a Writer?

  by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

The best gift you can give a writer is to stand as sentinel at the gateway of your writer's solitude, to badly paraphrase Rilke. While this not something you are liable to purchase at Target, and it is most certainly never discounted, and if you find it in the bargain bin you should be honest enough to inform the management—it will secure you a writer's undying affection. For awhile.

If that is not your style, you can attempt to bring lovingly wrapped fountain pens and blank journals with silky paper but your writer generally already has the tools of the trade. What they would prefer is that you come instead with your hands cupped around a shard of story, a little chunk of your own heartache or soul wounds that you're willing to share. Then, sit quietly with your back against the door of that writer's space until they creep out, weary and exhilarated. Do not expect gratitude.

You can always bring the gift of an ear, being sure never to laugh at your writer unless you have specifically been asked to. Though be warned: a writer in a fit of mood might ask for your opinion and then use it to bludgeon you over the head with if you should give one they're not expecting.

If none of those gift options pleases you then the best gift you can give a writer is to act not as sentinel, but as bodyguard against the judgments of peers and family who demand to know when the novel will be done, when the screenplay will sell, and when "those little poems" will finally earn them a decent living. If you can protect your writer from these sharp-tipped and uncaring barbs, you will assure yourself a permanent place in their life. You may even be immortalized in their work.



Jordan E. Rosenfeld receives her greatest gift of time to write in the silence of her Morgan Hill office, which is farther from Petaluma than she would like. Her cat Figaro, when not in protest at his new diet, stands sentinel while her psychologist husband has the role of bodyguard. Just about every family member has been immortalized in her work.





Kate Douglas



The best gift you can give a writer is time and silence without guilt. I treasure those hours of the day when my husband is off at work and the grown kids aren't experiencing a crisis that might require "Mom." It's during that special, almost magical time when I can freely lose myself in a fantasy world and write. I can spend hours agonizing over one word, the way it sounds, the rhythm it gives a particular passage. I can become my characters, living vicariously, and of course writing down, all the wonderful things they get to do outside my own reality. I write full time. It is my job, my career, the dream I've worked toward my entire adult life. I often worried if I would grow tired of the commercial aspect of writing for a living, but I realize now I'm one of the lucky ones. I am paid to follow my muse, and all my muse asks for is a little bit of quiet, a great deal of time, and the chance to tell all the stories trapped inside.



Kate Douglas
www.katedouglas.com
Wolf Tales, Sexy Beast, Wolf Tales II, Wild Nights--Kensington Aphrodisia

http://www.myspace.com/katedouglas_wolftales
NEWSLETTER: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/KateDouglas/




Ken Rodgers



I could give her a new laptop computer so she could write anywhere, anytime, or a month at a writing retreat to help eliminate all the bothersome details of life, but I won't do that. Hell, I won't do that for myself. I could send him a new copy of John Gardner's "The Art of Fiction," or a book of short stories by Alice Munro, or essays by Martin Amis, something by Atwood or Akhmatova.

But these things, though nice, aren't what a writer really needs. What a writer needs is for me to tell her, again and again, that a disciplined writing practice is the most important tool in the writer's repertoire. A regular practice that gets him working on and applying hard-earned craft. Practicing so that when she suddenly receives an inspirational jolt from thin white curtains caught in a gust, a brindled cat hiding under an ornamental cherry tree, a cloud that thunders like an Abrams tank, the craft is there to corral the inspiration, to pet it, whisper erotic things in its ear. Then he can fold it in with his craft to make a miracle.

This is the issue that I think is most important for the writer to grasp. This is the issue that is most difficult for me as a writer. If I can get her to understand that disciplined practice is most important, if I can convince him that some days it just doesn‘t work, the writing, but he must continue to scribble or pound keys because he has no notion when inspiration will strike. If I can convince writers of these things, then I have given them the most valuable gift.



Ken Rodgers lives and writes and teaches in beautiful Boise, Idaho. He spends a lot of time chastising himself for a personal lack of disciplined writing practice. He also likes receiving gifts. See more about Ken
at Ken's Website


www.kennethrodgers.com.


Marylu Downing



Permission to show the scarlet underbelly, the stinger, or the sex goddess hiding within, is the greatest gift a writer can get! The chance to let those closeted sides out to run free like the bulls in Pamplona, with men in capes, or just sweat-soaked shirts running along beside us. Those visiual images and wild thoughts-- those are gifts too. They are what push us along with the hope that the reader will see, smell, taste and feel it too! (And if that doesn't do it, a subscription to the New Yorker, to be read early in the morning, might.)

Marylu Downing's writing has been featured in publications such as "The Dickens," "Saltwater, Sweetwater," and "Jasmine Nights and Monkey Pluck: Love, Discovery and Tea." Her paintings can be found all over Northern California.

Moleskines and Other Matters

  by Mimi Ghez

It's almost Christmas and you know what that means - ho ho ho and a lot of snow, and presents round the trees. If you're shopping around for the perfect gift for a writer friend, you won't find it on Amazon or at Barnes and Noble, though their advertising departments will try ferociously to trick you into thinking they might know what is in the real writer's heart of hearts. Believe me, they don't have a clue.

There will be promotions, there will be pretty displays, but listen to me when I tell you: do not buy a Moleskine journal for your loved one. They are gorgeous journals, made in Italy and bound together with deliciously thick, acid free paper that is cream colored, like the fancy paper I used to print my fresh-out-of-college resumes on. Some are pocket sized, some are hard cover, some are beige, some are black. The cardboard that wraps around each, binding them, is slightly rough to the touch, elegant, like a kiwi. I am totally intimidated by my Moleskines and have the worst case of performance anxiety around them I've had since high school debate.

The small folded insert in my Moleskine announces that the journal is a "legendary notebook, used by European artists and thinkers for the past two centuries, from Van Gogh to Picasso, from Ernest Hemingway to Bruce Chatwin." Now I don't know about you, but the idea of writing in the exact same kind of notebook as Hemingway tends to make my work feel, well, a bit pedestrian at best. I tried valiantly to take my Moleskine out of my canvas shoulder bag when I saw something interesting on the street, jot it down, describe it, capture it, but all I could really think was, Is this thought really worthy of a Moleskine page? It is so the cat that ate the rat and so on and so on and who really cares in the end, anyway? I am defiling this perfect cream page, this page where Ernest Hemingway would certainly have had more lofty thoughts than mine. When I force myself to put pen to paper, I feel like I am doing something terrible, like leaving food on my plate when there are starving children in Africa, but I can't help it because nothing I write or even doodle seems worthy of my Moleskine. Eventually, I give up, close the too perfect journal, walk to the nearest CVS and buy a simple 3-ringed school notebook pad with a tacky purple cardboard cover that now bangs around comfortably in my shoulder bag. I can scribble any old crap in my purple notebook, and that's mostly what I do. But hey, at least I'm writing and that's what writers are supposed to do. No one said it had to be pretty.

So, no Moleskines. Also, no fountain pens, please. The last one I received, a gorgeous blue number made in Paris by Waterman, perfectly weighted and able to fit 7 nub sizes and 9 color ink tubes, is sitting next to my Moleskine. Every time I try to write with it I have flashbacks to my eighth grade English class, where we wrote our favorite poems in calligraphy with fountain pens while listening to Gregorian chants. My performance anxiety gets worse than it was when it was just me and the Moleskine, and I sit there feeling totally inadequate, trying to remember the lines of that Gwendolyn Brooks poem I copied down as a kid, the one that has something to do with jazzing June and dying too soon. Which of course I can't remember so I feel even worse, sitting there with this beautiful pen and nothing to say and a failing memory to boot. And now there is ink on my fingers, which is black but could be red, green, yellow or 5 other colors if I wanted it to be, but really all I want is a blue Bic ballpoint that glides when I write and fits slimly and perfectly between my second and third fingers, resting on my thumb. Not this gorgeous pen, that comes with an actual page's worth of operating instructions and makes me feel like I have to relearn the one thing I thought I had down in this writing life - the ability to actually, physically put pen to paper. Please, no more fountain pens.

In fact, truth be told, this writer really doesn't need anything at all for Christmas. Except maybe a check for $140 for a trip to my shrink. Even if he can't cure me of my performance anxiety problems, what we talk about definitely makes for a good story.





Mimi Ghez is a writer living in Washington, DC. She can be reached at E-Mail mimi.ghez@gmail.com

Her previous work has been published in the "Washington Post," "San Francisco Chronicle," and "Tiny Lights," and she was named Illinois Poet Laureate junior by poet Gwendolyn Brooks. She would like to officially thank anyone who has ever given her a Moleskine or a fountain pen, and to request forgiveness for her cheekiness.



What's the best gift you can give a writer?

  by Paula Matzinger

What's the best gift you can give a writer?

In a general sense, I do not know what the best gift is you can give a writer. A fancy pen? A new laptop? An office with a door? A miniature muse to sit on one's shoulder? How would I know what every writer needs? But I do know what gift would accommodate my specific needs in the specific phase of my writing career.

I have only been writing for eight years. In that time I have produced dozens of essays and a couple hundred poems. Much of my earlier work was juvenile, at best, and I wasn't sure why I stuck with it. But as I became more experienced and discovered the self-satisfaction in completing a half-way decent poem or essay, I decided, like a million other wannabes, that I wanted to become a published writer.

My first goal was to publish before my 30-year high school reunion. That came and went with me failing to send anything out. I then set my new sights on publishing before I turned 50. On my 50th birthday, as I blew out the candles on my cake, somehow never having made it to the mailbox, I set a new goal: send something to a publisher by the end of my 50th year. Eleven months later, Susan Bono asked for one of my poems for her online Searchlights and Signal Flares (source of the prompt for this essay). I sent my poem to her. Technically, I am now published. But other than that one poem, I still have failed to send my writing out into the greater publishing arena.

I question why I haven't. Am I scared of rejection? I don't think so. I am aware that writers are constantly rejected. I have been told you can decide to paper a bathroom wall with rejection slips, but before you complete the job, you will get published. Am I not good enough yet? Perhaps, for most venues, but I firmly believe all writers are good enough for some publication, somewhere. Do I become overwhelmed whenever I begin to organize my pieces, evaluate them, rewrite if necessary and then research for an appropriate literary magazine or website to send them to? The answer to the last sentence is: yes, yes, yes and yes.

I am now in my 51st year and have set a more specific goal. Send a bunch of work out to a bunch of literary magazines. See what happens. This is where the best gift to me, as a writer, comes in:

A knock at my front door. I open my door to a very large box, tied with a red bow - my name on it. I open the box. There is a person inside. The person introduces himself/herself as my personal publishing assistant. My assistant states that he/she is very interested in my writing (doesn't have to like it) and would be happy to do the sorting, evaluating, let me know which pieces I need to edit, and find the appropriate places for me to submit. My assistant would even make the copies necessary, write the letters of introduction and label and stamp the envelopes. My assistant would not need to be paid.

Of course, I realize this will never happen - the box with the free assistant inside. So I had better stop musing on the impossible and get to work - start digging through my poems - review some publishers. But I don't have much time. I have to pick up my kids from school in 20 minutes. Susan Bono has distracted me, yet again, from what I really needed to be doing by asking us to answer this month's Searchlight and Signal Flares question. Well, here it is. And, oh, that's right - Susan told me she publishes any submission. All I need to do… is send it.


Paula Matzinger writes, dreams, and prepares to publish more in Sebastopol, CA.

Rebecca Lawton



Best not to give knick-knacks. She hates to dust. Refrain from giving chocolate. She falls into a funk when the high wears off. Maybe not a bottle of wine. Her drunken words sound charming only until the next day's hangover. Another book? I don't know--she likes to pick her own.

What she could really use is water in her well: the space to dream, a walk in the mountains, honest praise. Skepticism when her characters sound wooden. A room of her own, flowers to grace the writing desk, a dark-needled fir outside to change in the light as the day passes.

Give her your faithfulness, your undying devotion, the deepest friendship.
Give her something to write about: your heart, your pain, your story.


Tiny Lights highly recommends anything written by Rebecca Lawton, especially her collection of essays, "Reading Water: Lessons from the River."
Rebecca Lawton's website





beccalawton.com


Susan Bono



Well, for starters, you might give her trouble. Trouble is number one on the list of basic ingredients a writer needs to be successful. In terms of plot, this is obvious, but the adversity I'm talking about runs deeper than that. Most kids who become writers have grown up feeling at odds with the world around them. Even if people weren't busy abusing or thwarting them, these children considered themselves misunderstood outsiders.

After all, if you're happy and well-adjusted and brimming with self-esteem, what's the point of writing or making any art, for that matter? I suspect even creators of sappy greeting cards and smiley face paraphernalia are troubled, even if it's only by the need to earn a living. Trouble is what drives a writer out of the sunlight and into the darkness where her work gets done. Provide enough rain on her parade to send her back under her rock to write about it.

If it costs too much to give your writer trouble, you can always fall back on the simplest and most personal of gifts—yourself. A writer is put on this earth to set her experiences on the page for the world to read. Whether you like it or not, she's likely to use you and the trouble you've already provided to spice up her writing. You know she has the right to tell her story any way she wants to. She may not need your permission, but she'll cherish your blessing.


Susan Bono finds just enough trouble in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

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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