Teacher’s Pets

Over the past twenty-eight years, the number of students I’ve taught would literally fill an arena. Since I’m not cut out to be a rock star or athlete, it’s wonderful that I’ve had the privilege and pleasure to teach thousands of students English; I’ve been passionate about it ever since I was in sixth grade, when I was devouring SRA reading cards while the other kids did their math or fooled around.

One of the most rewarding things about my teaching career is that I’ve been fortunate to teach and tutor so many students. Over the years, a conservative number of students (both in-class and in tutoring sessions) is 5,600. (That’s 200 students a school year times 28). Let me introduce you to several of my very special tutorees:

First and foremost, Kevin D. has been my charge for the past four years. When I met Kevin in 2016, he was a slight seventh grader with a quiet, polite demeanor. Newly arrived from China with his lovely parents, he needed to strengthen his English skills so he could do well on his state ELA test and, of course, in his English class. Week after week, Kevin amazed me with his intelligence, diligence, and most of all, his kindness. He is literally the kindest student I’ve ever had in 28 years, and I’ve had some very, very nice students. He never has a bad word, a bad mood, or a bad day. He is relentlessly optimistic, polite, and very, very smart. What a joy it’s been spending so many hours with him, watching him not only grow in his command of reading and writing and eventually prepare for his SATs, but seeing him literally grow from a small seventh-grade boy to a tall eleventh-grade young man. I have no doubt he’ll ace his SATs. The quarantine interrupted our weekly tutoring sessions in March, but his lovely, sweet mother Maria has texted me throughout the Covid-19 crisis to say he’s doing well. I’m sure Harvard, Yale, and Stanford will be among his top college picks, and I have utmost confidence they’ll pick him as well.

Sara D. is an 11-year-old dynamo who’s on track to be the next Wimbledon champion. Because of her tennis training, she needed a tutor to homeschool her in English. I was extremely fortunate to receive a call from her dad, and we set up a daily schedule that was perfect for us both. I would tutor her on my way home from teaching my classes at Farmingdale State College. Tutoring Sara was a

dream. She, too, is respectful, kind, and has a mind that’s as lightning fast as her tennis volley. She has the maturity of someone twice her age, but she’s also a fun, down-to-earth, and super sweet girl who’s a teacher’s dream. I’m so proud to know her, and I’m sure that before too long she’ll be wowing the crowds at Wimbledon. Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, my time with Sara was cut short, but I’m looking forward to working with her again this fall.

Stephanie R. is 30 years old now. Perhaps she’s a mom and a teacher herself. I tutored her when she was in third grade and her mom was working two jobs to support Stephanie and her brother Fred. Her mom was a very sweet, trusting soul, and during the hours I spent with Stephanie I was touched by her mother’s boundless love and sacrifice for her children and her willingness to entrust me with Stephanie’s care while she worked. I would meet Stephanie at 3:30 in her apartment every Wednesday. Stephanie was always smiling, and she always called me “Miss Honi,” even though I told her that Honi would do fine. I was so proud of Stephanie’s steady growth and command of English skills; she, too, was very mature for a girl of just eight years old. Then Stephanie suddenly moved, I didn’t hear from her or her mother for several years, and I had no way to get in touch with them.

One day, I ran into Stephanie in the library in Astoria when she was around 15, and I was so surprised and happy to see her I was literally dumbstruck. She recognized me, smiled, and we spoke for a bit, and I was awed by her poise and intelligence. She was as polite and lovely as always, and though I haven’t seen her since, whenever I think of her I can’t help but get teary-eyed that the sweet little girl whose mother spoke limited English and worked so hard is now a grown woman I’ve lost touch with. I would be thrilled to hear from her should she ever come across my post. Stephanie, sweetheart, if you’re out there, know I’m thinking of you and the impact you had on me. I hope I had an impact on you as well.

There are so many other students who’ve moved me whether I’ve taught them as a middle school teacher, a professor, or a tutor, who’ve inspired me to give them my best as I try to inspire the same in them. I’m thankful to the many schools and colleges I’ve worked at for the opportunities I’ve had. I’m also grateful to the many parents of my tutorees for entrusting me with their children’s education.

What a privilege it’s been to be welcomed into their home week after week, to watch their kids improve their reading and writing skills and, in many cases, gain mastery over the SAT and ACT exams. I wonder if those children and their parents realize how much they’ve taught me not only about teaching, but about sacrifice, dedication, and love. Those lessons would fill many arenas.

A Special Reunion and Writing as Catharsis

On June 25, 1990, I met my twin sister Alison Rae Schlesinger for the first time in 24 years. We were 27 years old, and we hadn’t seen each other since we were three. For most of our lives, we’d lived 60 miles apart from each other, she in New York City and I on Long Island. She was a secret no one in my family ever mentioned; hence, neither did I. All my life, I’d wondered where and how she was and if we’d ever meet again. In 1990, with two phone calls to two schools she attended, I tracked her down and ended a nearly quarter-century separation.

In many ways, Alison and I were total opposites. I’m healthy; she was severely disabled. Growing up, I was very shy, but Alison, who had cerebral palsy and was mentally challenged, was outgoing. Connecting with people at her day program at United Cerebral Palsy and at her Intermediate Care Facility at Tanya Towers came as easily to her as walking came to me. Though she spent her life in her wheelchair, she never let her circumstances dictate her ability to tell others how she felt. If she loved you, she said so and blew you five kisses. If you got on her nerves, she’d say, “Leave me alone!” and be done with you for five minutes until her anger blew over and she blew you five kisses. Yes, there were times she was as sassy as she was sweet, but even her sassiness was tinged with sweetness. And on June 25, 1990, when we set eyes on each other for the first time in 8,760 days, she told me, “Honi, I thought you were hiding from me.” What I couldn’t verbally express, I’m sure my eyes revealed.

In 1990, I was living in Manhattan, just a few subway stops from Alison. Though nothing on earth scared me more, I knew I couldn’t postpone reconnecting with her any longer.

The morning of our reunion, I met my sisters Stacey and Randee; they’re my biological cousins. Their mother is my biological aunt. She raised me as her daughter; she’s Mom. Her sister Zelda is Alison’s and my biological mother. She was a heroin addict. Though Zelda relinquished me, she raised Alison despite her addiction.

Those shaky steps I took from Penn Station on June 25th, 1990 to the door of UCP to meet Alison were the most important steps I’ve taken in my life. Each step brought me closer to Alison. Each step closed that quarter-century gap until I was standing beside her, holding her hand, stroking her hair, and fighting tears. Finally, after twenty-four years, we were together.

After our reunion, I cried for the 24 years that we had lost, all the pain our separation cost both of us. But I also shed tears of relief. I no longer felt ashamed of my twin sister or myself. I was no longer terrified of seeing her or admitting the truth about Zelda and the impact she had on our lives. Forging a relationship with Alison helped ease the separation I felt from others. Once we were reunited, I could speak of my twin sister; she was no longer a secret. I could write about our lives. Our reunion made us both whole. Year after year since June 25th, 1990, I learned (with lots of therapy), who I was, who she was, and how to forge a new bond, one that to this day remains unbroken despite Alison’s passing in 2018. Every Friday, I visit her grave. Often, I imagine she’s whispering in my ear as I revise the novel I’m writing—Zelda’s Daughters—about our story, our history. When I get discouraged, I remember telling her how hard writing this has been. I remember her response: “Honi, you can do it.”

Despite the difficulty, writing Zelda’s Daughters also has been as cathartic and empowering as reuniting with Alison. It forced me to confront the past, painful as it was. It enabled me to ask questions of my mom, and what questions she couldn’t answer I had to imagine, and I found comfort in this as well. I

discovered that no matter if I incorporated literal facts or blurred the facts in my novel, the truth no longer overpowered me. The pen might be mightier than the sword, and it’s also stronger than the truth that shames or scares if you’re willing wield it with patience and perseverance.

If there’s someone or something in your past you need to connect with or confront, whether in person, on the page, or both, take that step, however tentative it may initially be. Then take another step. And another. Step-by-step, you’ll get stronger. In time, setting the words down will be as necessary and natural as breathing. You’ll face your fears. You’ll grow. You’ll stare those demons down until they disappear in the shadows. Whatever comes from the effort, word after word you’ll see yourself evolve, both as a person and a writer. Often, you won’t know where those words will lead. As in life, it will often be scary. But step-by-step, word-by-word, your writing and your spirit will strengthen. The experience will be as important and empowering as reuniting with a long-lost twin sister.

Persnickety Punctuation

For those of us who love sentences, for those who roll words on our tongues like cherry Lifesavers (and who doesn’t?), punctuating sentences often comes naturally, like breathing. However, for many students—even my college students—punctuation’s a guessing game, a boring quest to place a comma, apostrophe, semi-colon, or period precisely where it belongs. A surprising number of students I’ve taught in over 25 years of college instruction don’t know how to write a sentence without at least an error or two, and most of the time these errors involve punctuation.

Punctuation is inherent, of course, in our ability to read and write sentences with clarity so our meaning doesn’t get misconstrued. Correct punctuation tells the reader where one

thought ends and another begins. It allows the reader to pause and collect his thoughts about what he’s reading. When punctuation is haphazard or non-existent, the sentence is flawed, like a shirt that’s stained, a hair out of place, crumbs in a gentleman’s beard. The writer’s and, hence, the reader’s ideas about the writing become muddled.

Now, I wasn’t always this persnickety about punctuation. In fact, early in my career I was clueless as to where a comma and a semi-colon went (though in my defense, I’ve never punctuated British-style in my life!). Perhaps I fell asleep in eleventh grade English class when dear Mr. Boloker started diagramming sentences. More likely, I was dreaming about Peter Frampton and wondering how I might procure backstage passes to one of his concerts.

But back in the days of my misspent youth, I was 24, working as an editor’s assistant at Woman’s Day magazine, and haphazardly jotting commas down in my sentences to the point where the editor asked me what the heck I was doing. Duly chastised, that evening I consulted my college grammar text, and my punctuation improved. However, it wasn’t until I started teaching several years later and assigned my students Pamela Arlov’s Wordsmith and Paige Wilson and Teresa Ferster Glazier’s The Least You Should Know About Writing that I felt confident in my punctuation prowess (and my alliterative abilities improved as well!). If you’re so inclined, both the above texts are worth the money, particularly the second one. The chapters are short, the instructions clear, and the exercises help reinforce each chapter’s main objective.

Even in writing this post, I confess I noticed faulty punctuation in several prior drafts. Punctuation is hard—it’s persnickety! And that’s why we must be extra mindful of it.

CRUCIFY THE COMMA SPLICE!

Seriously, when did it become okay to connect sentences with just a comma? This is called a COMMA SPLICE, and it’s a big NO-NO, punctuation-wise. As with British-style punctuation being used by North Americans writing and publishing in the good ol’ U.S. of A. (read upcoming rant—ie: blog post—on that!), authors seemingly everywhere are committing this grievous error, thereby contributing to the punctuation problem. Now, true, it’s not on the same level as climate change, but if one hopes to be literary, one should avoid such a

faux pas. I get why some established and/or highly skilled authors use just a comma to connect certain sentences, apparently because it keeps the rhythm of the sentence moving. If, instead of a simple comma, you use an ellipsis repeatedly to help show the connection between ideas, well, those three little dots would soon be quite distracting. Use just one dot instead! The comma splice is ubiquitous—it’s in novels, literary journals, all over the internet, and again, it’s an error that writers would do well to avoid.

The simple, lonely period indicates that the writer’s idea for that sentence is finished, and it gives the reader a moment to comprehend this, connect with said writer’s idea and move onto the next idea in the next sentence. Writing a few straightforward declarative sentences in succession is fine. You won’t sound like you’re back in first grade. On the contrary,

you’ll sound clear, intelligent, and your reader will be able to grasp your meaning effortlessly.

The comma splice virus is kind of like multi-tasking. Society has grown accustomed to doing more faster, often without the opportunity for deep thought (or sometimes, any thought) to occur, so concerned are we with getting it all in, all done, quick, quick, quick, no time to search for the period or semi-colon keys when it’s just so comfy to put one’s middle finger down a row, depress the comma key, and hurry onto the next run-on like a literary jackrabbit.

Often, as I previously mentioned, you can use a semi-colon instead of just a comma to connect two independent clauses provided the clauses are related in subject matter. For example, you could write the following:

T.C. Boyle’s story “Greasy Lake” depicts three young men who consider themselves “dangerous characters”; they soon realize that being dangerous isn’t quite as alluring as they once thought it was.

You could also write the exact same independent clauses (ie: complete sentences) with a comma between them as long as you follow that comma with a coordinating conjunction, known in punctuation vernacular as the acronym fanboys (f=for; a=and; n=nor; b=but; o=or; y=yet; s=so). Hence, you could take the same sentence and structure it this way:

T.C. Boyle’s story “Greasy Lake” depicts three young men who consider themselves “dangerous characters,” yet they soon realize that being dangerous isn’t quite as alluring as they once thought it was.

Finally, of course, you could take the same two independent clauses and simply put a period between them, thus making one sentence two:

T.C. Boyle’s story “Greasy Lake” depicts three young men who consider themselves “dangerous characters.” They soon realize that being dangerous isn’t quite as alluring as they once thought it was.

Notice the clarity and sophistication of the two sentences separated by a period is as evident in the above example as it is in the prior two. Nothing is lost when one simplifies and ends a sentence with a period.

Whether you opt for a semi-colon, a comma and a fanboys, or a period between your independent clauses, remember that our job as writers is to make our writing

effortless for the readers. Banishing the comma splice—except in rare cases once you’ve mastered the art of banishing it—will lend clarity to your work, and you have better, accurate options.

Your readers will appreciate that!

Procrastination

Procrastination

Procrastination is easy to do. And it’s fun! In fact, just now as I’m supposed to be writing this blog post, I’ve got 12 tabs on my internet browser open…my mind is wandering to what I’m going to make myself for lunch…yes, I think I’m going to go take a break and get lunch now…

…So, where were we? Oh, yes. “Procrastination” is easy. Whether you are a student, working in a fast-paced corporate environment, dealing with a stressful job or boss, or even a stay-at-home parent, there are always things that you would rather be doing. Why write this report today, when I’ll have all day to finish it tomorrow?  Why type up the analytics for my boss now—they’re not even due until next week?  Why clean the basement today, when I can just do it next weekend? And so on…and so on….  Coming up with excuses to avoid work is easy, and sometimes internally creative.  Some are even inventive excuses (Why write this today? What if there’s an apocalypse tomorrow? Do I really want my last thoughts to be: “Gee, I’m so glad I submitted that report on time.”).   All preferences to doing actual work.

Two Work Strategies

So, what do you do about it?  Maybe I’ll answer that in the next blog post.  No Wait!  Back to task.  When people sit down to work on something, there are two strategies they can pick from. The first one involves sitting there, meticulously forming and reforming the words in the first sentence until they glide off the tongue in a satisfying swish of perfection. It involves rewriting the sentence until it meets even your own demanding standards. It involves rewording the sentence until you are completely satisfied with the way it turned out. You get the point. It is easy to get bogged down with this strategy because you will be stuck working on one sentence, reorganizing, rearranging, rewriting, until you are completely satisfied. This is extremely time-consuming, and then after a couple of hours or so, all you have to show for yourself is one little usually imperfect sentence, but nothing else. “Is that really worth it?” you say to yourself.  “Nah, might as well wait until tomorrow.”  You know how it goes.  This is a disheartening strategy, and should be avoided at all costs.

The second strategy is to get a piece of paper, or sit before the computer screen, and just start writing. Get down as many ideas, words and sentences as possible even if it is crap. Let the work just flow from your fingertips. Expect it to be 80% awful, but they’ll be 20% in there that makes sense.  See writing, or building a computer program or whatever you do, is about editing, about the tweaks you add later.  You just need to get started and, then when you finish, you can go back and revise. This is where you rework wordy sentences, take out unnecessary information and tighten up the whole piece. And this strategy works for all types of projects. If you are procrastinating cleaning the basement, just get yourself to go down and put things away. Even if it is haphazard at first and nothing is neatly organized, at least you have gotten started. In order to resist procrastination, you need to move forward, and then the momentum of the movement will carry you on continuously in that direction.

Three Tips to Help Fight Procrastination

  1. Avoid Perfectionism. There is never going to be a perfect time or a perfect place for you to begin. You are never going to avoid criticism.  If you keep waiting for the perfect moment, you’ll be waiting forever. If you keep waiting until you are completely satisfied with your first sentence, you will never make it to the second one. Don’t tell yourself that something needs to perfect right now—tell yourself perfection is a process that you will have to arrive at over time. People tend to think being a perfectionist is good, helpful even. But perfectionism can be incredibly debilitating, and even lead to procrastination. Avoid thoughts such as, “I can’t go on until this is perfect” and “I’m scrapping the whole thing and doing it over.”
  1. Set manageable goals. If you try to commit to doing something insurmountable, it is impossible to begin. Set yourself small and manageable goals and make sure you stick with them. Don’t tell yourself you need to write the entire paper, design the entire magazine spread, or catch up on all your reports in one day. This can psych you out and then you will never begin.
  1. Reward yourself. Often. After you accomplish your small goal, reward yourself with a snack, a TV break, social media time, or whatever else you enjoy. Just make sure this break doesn’t last too long. Tell yourself you only have 20 minutes, and then when you accomplish your next small goal, you will get another 20. Keep up this pattern until your entire task is completed.

Use these tips to help you avoid the pitfalls of procrastination. If you have any other tips, or would like to share your own story, please comment below!

The Writer’s Nook

Where is your perfect place to write? My usual writing desk is my dining room table. I have a set of French doors to my left and three floor-to-ceiling 12-inch panes straight ahead of me. I love glimpsing my humble backyard and my neighbor’s 20-foot tall fir trees that border it on the right side. The natural light is wonderful, and it’s a pleasure to look out at the sky, the trees, and the intermittent squirrels skittering across our deck.   

Silence is key. Even low volume classical or spa music distracts me; I’m convinced I have adult ADD, though I’ve never been medically tested. Sometimes I listen to Springsteen, Beatles, or U2 just before I write to get me in the mood, but when I set pen to paper, I need to be totally focused. The ticking of the radiator is about all the noise I can tolerate.

This past December, my husband, daughter, and I visited Aruba for some R & R. While I loved the white sand beaches and crystalline Caribbean Sea, one of the most divine aspects of our getaway was the few hours I spent in a perfect little writing nook several mornings before my family awoke. We were lucky enough to stay at a resort, and in a corner of the lobby, up a winding staircase was a balcony that looked onto a pristine golf course. In the near distance was a postcard-worthy view of the ocean and swaying palm trees. One morning, while reading To Kill a Mockingbird and jotting down my thoughts, I watched a cruise ship sail into port.

What writer doesn’t long for such an inspiring, calming, and exquisite scene? As Virginia Woolf says in “A Room of One’s Own,” “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Of course, cash and a room that’s conducive to writing are valuable assets, and I am utterly blessed to have been lucky enough to take an eight-day escape with my family and discover my own blissful Aruban corner in which to read, write, and dream. Playwright Lillian Hellman goes a bit further than Woolf and is more specific in her preferences, writing, “A room of one’s own isn’t nearly enough. A house, or best, an island of one’s own.” Did Ms. Hellman have a benefactor? I’m sure Stephen King, James Patterson, J.K. Rowling and some uber-wealthy others could afford it, but most of us struggling writers must content ourselves with a more modest escape. If only!

In my single days, I lived in a basement studio apartment in Astoria, Queens (New York City) from 1996-2004. I sat at an antique vanity I bought at Goodwill for $125.00 and set it against a wall. This wall had a cell-like window (about 12 by 12 inches, complete with bars to keep potential burglars out). I wrote hundreds—if not thousands—of pages of my novel Zelda’s Daughters. While large bay windows would have been ideal, there wasn’t much to see except the side of the next door neighbor’s house and, from my front door and the other cell-like window on the front-facing wall, a congressman’s stately brick house across the street. Except for mornings when my landlady (a very sweet Sicilian woman who lived upstairs and made delicious cookies and zucchini flowers) would yell to the next-door neighbor her 7 a.m. greeting: “Serafina! Serafina!” as though she was the town crier, it was quiet. I could think. Imagine. Learn. Grow.

This brings me back to the pristine Aruban writing nook I relished for a few blissful solitary hours where my world and I were one, where my soul expanded and connected to my thoughts and I felt, This is me, this is what I love. If I could do this seven days a week, all day, every day, with breaks for family and friends…oh, if only. I was so relaxed that I managed to shut out soft music from the lobby and the whir of the golf carts and delivery trucks on the road below. The only noise I noticed was the susurrus of the swaying palm fronds. Fun? Yes, this was not only fun. It was heavenly.

There was even a very sweet young man named Alejandro downstairs working as a barista at the lobby’s Coffee Corner. Each day, before I climbed the curving staircase, we’d exchange pleasantries and he’d make my vanilla latte. I told Alejandro, who is Colombian but was raised in Aruba since childhood, my husband’s and my plans for a writing center and blog, and that if things worked out we’d come back in the summer with a group of writers for a retreat where we all would enjoy his coffee and smoothies and climb the curved staircase together, relish the view, and write.

The accompanying photo shows Alejandro in all his charm, and though I may never see him again (my husband was not as enamored with Aruba as I was), I’m grateful for his kindness, his hospitality, and the warmth he added to those precious hours where I had a postcard view and the time and space to DREAM.

Now that I’m back home and in full-throttle working mode, I hope that in Everything About Writing—the office as well as the blog—you’ll find your own little writing nook here, whether it’s live or virtual. As each of us go about our lives, mentally or physically checking off our daily to-do lists, as the world spins on its axis at 1,000 miles per hour and soars around the sun at 65,000 miles per hour (thank G-d for gravity!), I hope you’ll find the solace, encouragement, and mental/emotional/intellectual space to write your heart and soul out, to pursue and achieve your literary dreams. Whether you live in a basement studio or a mansion, vacation in the Caribbean or the Catskills, I hope you’ve found a place that soothes, sustains and inspires you. Whether your view is of a wall and you write in silence or to the beat of head-banger music, may the words flow from your pen, may your heart be hopeful, and may magic exist on every page.

What I’ve Learned from Reading To Kill a Mockingbird

Last March, my nephew and his wife welcomed a beautiful baby girl and named her Harper Lee, not because they’re huge fans of the author or her famous novel, but just because they love the name. I must confess that until this past summer I’d never read To Kill a Mockingbird, was never assigned it in high school or college, and though it was high on my reading bucket list, I’d frankly never had the impetus I needed to trot down to the local library or bookstore and acquire it. There was always a more current bestseller to contend with.

Enter little Harper Lee. Her exquisite face and namesake shot that novel’s place from the middle of my bucket list to the top, so late one night last August I ordered the book off Amazon and was excited when it arrived. I saw the sweet-faced girl on the cover, knew she was the Scout I’d long heard about, and started reading.

Now I must also confess that about 60 pages in, I found Scout’s voice and her many character references, both direct and indirect, charming, compelling—and confusing. Though it wasn’t entirely foreign, I couldn’t quite “get” the rhythm and syntax of Scout’s voice, which I heard as simultaneously child- and adult-like. This is one of the most engaging aspects of Lee’s novel (there are many, of course). Like an intricate dance step, I had to practice the auditory one-two-three, one-two-three; in my first reading, the muscle memory wasn’t indelible. I also had to figure out the nature of this Boo Radley (what a great name!) fellow Scout, Jem, and Dill are so bent on harassing throughout most of the book’s first half. Their preoccupation with the phantom-like Boo caught me entirely off-guard, as I’d long heard the crux of Mockingbird centers on the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Naturally, I had expected to bear witness to the actual or fabricated crime, the characters involved, the courtroom scene, but those don’t spring to life until the second half of the novel. My first lesson, as in life: never assume!

I still have questions about the book’s opening because it seems to contradict the edict we fiction writers hear on the first day of creative writing class: “Show, Don’t Tell.” From the first sentence to the top of page seven, we are told about Jem’s broken arm, the Ewells, Simon Finch, Atticus, John Hale Finch, Maycomb, Montgomery, the Haverfords, the aforementioned Boo Radley, and other names and places, and that’s just up to page five. No wonder I couldn’t keep it all straight! Not that the writing isn’t stellar, but it’s a lot of information to take in so quickly. I’d love to hear your thoughts on why the author begins with so much backstory. True, some of it alludes to the trial, and our narrator is now grown and looking back on this meaningful event, so the opening serves to frame that. I wonder, though, if Lee’s manuscript came across an agent’s or editor’s desk today, would they advise the author to begin on page 7, when Scout and Jem first encounter Dill in Rachel Haverford’s collard patch? Hmmm.

What I love most about this book is the childhood depiction of these three. On my second reading, Scout’s voice and vernacular coalesced, and I realized that Dill is Capote to Scout’s Lee. How amazing is it that these two eminent authors were childhood friends. What were they drinking in the hickory-infused water and smelling in the eucalyptus-scented air? If they could package and send it to Long Island, I’d rattle the grill on the post office door to be the first to try it!

Of course, Lee’s writing is impeccable. She’s a master of simile, as in the following examples: “Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum,” and how Boo Radley’s house affects Dill: “…it drew him as the moon draws water.” Aside from Lee’s gift for simile, the narrative is so richly detailed, it’s as though Scout knows every blade of grass that grows in Maycomb County. And much of that detail has a great dash of humor, as in the following: “Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were blood-stained—if you ate an animal raw, you could never wash the blood off. There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time.”

Aside from Mockingbird’s timeless message about the evils of racism, the injustice of betrayal and hypocrisy, there’s a trove of writing lessons to learn if you have the time and inclination to read or reread the text as one who luxuriates during a sultry Alabama summer afternoon. Take each sentence slowly; savor its richness. Notice how from page seven to 323, the scenes are primarily shown, not told; that is, they are carefully depicted, as though Lee has sketched Radley’s sagging house, the cootie crawling out of Burris Ewell’s scalp, and all the narrative details that follow. Underline the specifics in both description and dialogue, how carefully they define each character. Then emulate with exercises. Carefully depict a home in your story or novel. What quirk or habit does your main character have? What sets his or her face apart from the seven billion others on the planet? As I write this, I’m learning and doing, and I plan to go through the entire novel again, hoping that by careful study and osmosis, I’ll acquire even a fraction more craftmanship. No writer, I imagine, was ever harmed by this, or by Lee’s inherent reminder of the lightning that strikes when we state things simply, directly. Let each specific word and detail capture time, space, and character.

Equally important is to find joy in this endeavor. To remember why we love sitting down with a pen, a laptop, setting down word after word, page after page. The process is the journey. Approaching Mockingbird with the intent of author-as-teacher I’m sure will unveil a rich field of discovery.

Push Through Self-Doubt

Self-doubt is a cold in my head that won’t go away. No dose of medicine, therapy sessions, pep talk, meditation, glass of wine, long meandering stroll through the neighborhood with my dog will vanquish it.

If you write, it’s likely you know the mantra: my work’s awful, who’d want to read this, it’s hopeless, I can’t do this, I’d rather clean the house, the car, bathe the cat—anything but commit precious hours to the page and waste even more time than I already have on this novel, story, essay, poem, etc. Even seasoned novelists, widely published authors stare in terror at the blank page. Anne LaMott devotes an entire essay to “Shitty First Drafts,” writing, “I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident.” At least there’s comfort in knowing we’re not alone in our insecurities, even among literary rock stars.

It seems unlikely that the flip side of self-doubt isn’t super-confidence. I believe it’s the feeling that I must write, that my psyche will wither and die if I don’t commit words to the page, that I’m as compelled to write as a gambler is to spin the roulette wheel, stack all he owns on a pile of chips and potentially lose it all on a dream as ethereal as air. It’s the nagging sense in my brain that my life—though blessed with family, friends, good health—will lose some of its meaning, its beauty if I don’t park myself in front of the laptop or sit for an hour with pen in hand and write something, revise that scene, that essay, that poem. It’s the feeling that something profound happened—a hurt, a tragedy, a triumph, a moment will be forever lost and must be set down on the page—and my life, my being, will be infinitely better for having written about it and maybe even shared it with someone—or no one—but the act of writing it down will have done my soul some good.

Still, the self-doubt nags at my brain like an un-scratchable itch. Comparisons are useless. Jealousy’s a motivation-stealer. The only thing to do is put it out of one’s mind and set words to the page. It’s like stretching before a run. I may not make it to the finish line uninjured or in record time, but if I keep going forward, step-by-step-by-step, however faltering, however many rest stops I need along the way, eventually, I’ll get there. I may not win first, second, or third prize, but I’ll have crossed that finish line, and that alone will be cause for celebration.

Writers, whether you’re a professional, an aspirant, or a hobbyist, if the craft is your calling, I hope that Everythingaboutwriting.com becomes your cheering squad, your go-to source for inspiration, reference, community, and advice. I’ll do my best to guide you as you follow your unique path towards publication or put the end-stop on whatever project you’re working on. I’m on this journey with you, and I know how steep those hills can be. Together, we’ll wend our way through the dense woods, better for beginning, persevering, and, when the stars and our efforts align, publishing.

“The ‘New Abnormal’ Lexicon”

by H. S. Brett

Flattening the curve. Social distancing. Coronavirus. Covid-19. These phrases and words are brand new to our collective lexicon. Three months ago, this “coronavirus” had suddenly become an epidemic in Wuhan (another word most of us had never heard of), China. I remember watching news reports of the quick construction of coronavirus hospitals in 10-12 days in late January because the virus was rapidly killing thousands of people half a world away.

Like millions—perhaps billions—of others worldwide, the past few weeks I’ve lain awake at night, worried that my beloved husband who lay sleeping beside me, with his myriad of preexisting conditions, might succumb to this scourge. I’ve worried that my husband might be unknowingly spending the last weeks of his life sleeping beside me, that in a day or a week or two weeks’ time he would get the dreaded symptoms and I’d rush him to the nearest ER. Or that I’d get a phone call from a frantic family member or friend telling me a beloved is in the ICU, that “it doesn’t look good.” I’ve worried about my sisters, my brother, all in their mid-sixties, all with their own health issues. I’ve worried about my friends, their families. And of course, I’ve worried about myself. I’ve had a pacemaker since 2012, and like a lot of Americans, I don’t eat right, don’t exercise like I should. I’m fifty-seven and like many others, I’m vulnerable. In many ways, we’re all vulnerable.

Friends, what has become of us? Who are our leaders? Shouldn’t they have known—as weeks became months and thousands died and the virus rampaged into South Korea and the Middle East, then across Europe and beyond and throughout the United States–that something much more sinister than a horror flick or Stephen King novel had erupted in Wuhan? It’s hard to believe they were as caught off-guard by Covid-19’s destruction as they claim they were. If they didn’t know, why not? Why would they trust the communist government of China to accurately report on the virus’s outbreak, its deadly effects? And

after recent pandemics of MRSA, SARS, H1N1, and Ebola—why hadn’t they adequately prepared for another one, just in case? How could they have been so blindsided, so lacking in forethought, PPEs (another new term those of us not in the medical field never knew until recently)? And were they really blindsided by this pandemic, or did they simply delay their responses due to political and economic reasons? Is this the best they could have done to protect the 2,256,844 (and counting) infected worldwide, the 154,350 (and counting) across the globe who’ve perished due to coronavirus? How could this “invisible enemy” cross continents and oceans, ravaging the vulnerable everywhere in just three months’ time when our leaders are elected to protect us?

Friends, we must fight back as best we can, with what we can. Of course, we can donate money to charities and masks to hospitals, make phone calls to elderly folks who belong to our houses of worship to see if they need anything. We can utilize our words in their highest form, through prayer: “Dear God, Protect us all. Heal the sick. Comfort the bereaved. Bless the souls of the deceased.” It’s what a lot of us are doing these days: sharing our funds, our supplies, our prayers, our words.

Undoubtedly, it’s a scary time, and for many of the vulnerable, a lonely time. Unless we’re centenarians, we’ve never lived through anything like this. We wonder when we’ll return to “normal,” or if we ever will. It’s not the “new normal” we’re living in now, it’s the “new abnormal.” Nothing’s normal about Covid-19 and its deadly repercussions. Nothing’s normal about the 22 million in the US alone who just five weeks ago enjoyed a robust economy and are suddenly unemployed, many of whom are joining thousands on food lines for the first time.

But we have words and a new lexicon. We have our emotions. If you’re outraged that our “leaders” have not protected us as you feel they should have, sooner than they did, let them know. Write to your politicians. Send letters to your newspapers. Whether you’re a published author or a private diarist, share your feelings, your fears, your frustration, your anger. When we share our stories, we share our humanity. Across continents, oceans, borders, and beliefs, we’ve all got stories to tell, minds and hearts that are undoubtedly full of words spilling over, needing to be shared. Friends, feel free to share them here. Share them everywhere.