Worth Defending

Happy July 4th! In honor of Independence Day, wisdom from our Founding Fathers:

“The liberties of our country, the freedom of our civil Constitution, are worth defending at all hazards; and it is our duty to defend them against all attacks. We have received them as a fair inheritance from our worthy ancestors: they purchased them for us with toil and danger and expense of treasure and blood, and transmitted them to us with care and diligence. It will bring an everlasting mark of infamy on the present generation, enlightened as it is, if we should suffer them to be wrested from us by violence without a struggle, or to be cheated out of them by the artifices of false and designing men.”
Samuel Adams

“Citizens by birth or by choice of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name AMERICAN, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same Religion, Manners, Habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together. The independence and Liberty you possess are the work of joint councils and joint efforts — of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.”
George Washington’s Farewell Address

“This will be the best security for maintaining our liberties. A nation of well-informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the religion of ignorance that tyranny begins.”
Benjamin Franklin

“Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present Generation to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.”
John Adams

“A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor and bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”

“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all.”

“I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
Thomas Jefferson

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Mood Changers

“Learn to alert your reader as soon as possible in a sentence to any change in mood from the previous sentence….Always make sure your readers are oriented.”

No, this post isn’t about mind-altering drugs — it’s about mood-altering prose!

On Writing Well by William Zinnser is one of my go-to handbooks on crafting clear, sparkling prose. And one of the things I love about it is that, just like EB White in The Elements of Style, our boy William isn’t wishy-washy. He has definite ideas about what makes for muscular, readable prose and he lets you know it. Here are some of William’s tips on using “mood changers” in your writing:

Tools of the trade — There are a host of words that do a workmanlike job of signaling to readers that a mood shift is afoot, so that they aren’t confused or surprised by your writing: “but,” “yet,” “however,” “still,” “nevertheless,” “instead,” “meanwhile,” “now,” “later,” and “today.”

Bring in the “buts” — “Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but.’ If that’s what you learned, unlearn it — there’s no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is primed for the change.”

Use “however” sparingly — If you find your prose is peppered with too many “buts,” William suggests strategically replacing some of them with “however.” “It is, however, a weaker word ans therefore needs careful placement. Don’t start a sentence with ‘however,’ — it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don’t end with ‘however’ — by that time it has lost is howeverness. Put it as early as you reasonably can — as I did three sentences ago. Its abruptness then becomes a virtue.”

“Yet” and “nevertheless” are great simplifiers — “Either of these words at the beginning of a sentence — ‘Yet he decided to go’ or ‘Nevertheless he decided to go’ — can replace a whole long phrase that summarizes what the reader has just been told.”

Time-frame tipsters — “Meanwhile,” “now,” “today,” and “later”– all help to signal shifts in time frame and can save readers needless confusion. “Now I know better.” “Later I found out why.” Phrases like these help make sure your reader is oriented.

Equipped with these handy mood-altering helpers, let’s all write on!

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Wise Whisperers

For some reason, I was inspired to take a peek at a gathering of writers’ quotes I enjoy. When I did, I found myself uplifted, so I thought I’d share some of them with you:

“In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of chaos,
make one definitive act. Just write.”
Natalie Goldberg

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”
William Wordsworth

“Practice from things as they are, and you will find strength and ease and a
a new fancy and new spirit coming altogether.”
John Ruskin to the artist Kate Greenaway.

“One writes to make a home for oneself, on paper, in time, in others’ minds.”
Alfred Kazin

“But have the courage to write whatever your dream is for yourself.”
May Sarton

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
Douglas Adams

“I might write four lines or I might write twenty. I subtract and I add until I
really hit something. You don’t always whittle down, sometimes you whittle up.”
Grace Paley

“If you did not write every day, the poisons would accumulate and you would begin to die,
or act crazy or both — you must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
Ray Bradbury

“And the trouble is, if you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.”
Erica Jong

“Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you,
say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot.”
D. H. Lawrence

“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”
George Eliot

I hope one of these writers whispers to you just the inspiration you need today as you write on!

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Enthusiasm Energizes

“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

“From that day on, I began to sell. The ‘Magic of Enthusiasm’ began to work for me in business, just as it had in baseball….I would not want to give anybody the impression that I think enthusiasm consists of fist-pounding…but if fist-pounding is what you need to arouse yourself inside, then I am overwhelmingly for it. I know this: When I force myself to act enthusiastic, I soon feel enthusiastic.”

“Force yourself to act enthusiastic, and you’ll become enthusiastic!”

Frank Bettger, How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling

Just recently, a friend who’d been feeling discouraged about her writing sent me a note saying that my enthusiasm about some pages she’d given me really gave her a boost. And in turn, she told me about some poetry programs for kids that heartened me about the approach I’m taking with my novel. This exchange drove home to me once again just how important it is that we share our enthusiasm with each other.

Writing is challenging and often we feel that we’re working in a bubble or trapped inside our own heads. When someone else gives us an energetic, positive response to our work — it can make all the difference.

In a nutshell, enthusiasm is a vital quality for us as writers on two fronts:
First, there’s the enthusiasm we give others when we share our excitement with them about what they are doing. This is a transfer of energy.

Second, and equally — or even more important — there’s the self-motivating enthusiasm we bring to our own work — the adrenalin boost we give ourselves when we bring joy and energy to the page.

As Frank Bettger’s inspiring comments above suggest, there’s a simple, but powerful technique you can use to light an inner fire — “to arouse yourself inside.” Just “act as if” you’re excited and energized and you’ll become excited and energized. What does enthusiasm look like for you? Would you bounce out of bed, ready for action? Would your mind be buzzing with ideas? Would you be totally “in the zone” when you began playing on the page? Whatever the ingredients are for you, why not try “acting as if” you have them in abundance and see what happens? Let “the Magic of Enthusiasm” work its magic on you. I’d love to hear whether this way of working is a winner as you write on.

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Precious Gifts

“Live life in full bloom!”
Quote in a cafe

Just this weekend, Nancy, my dear friend and writing buddy, threw a double-themed party. It was a birthday bash and a gratitude party to thank her family and friends for supporting her and helping her launch into the next phase of her life. What a wonderful idea — a gratitude party!

Nancy’s sisters wrote a poem for the occasion, which was read with zest and flair. It touched on their childhood and celebrated Nancy’s writing gifts and accomplishments, including her two books, If I Could Paint the Moon Black and From the Abuellas’ Window. What a gift! The poem was funny and moving — it sparkled with the sense of pride that Nancy’s family feels in her growing success as a writer.

After we’d all laughed and clapped, Nancy gave those of us gathered around her an equally precious gift: She told us a story. It was a story someone had shared with her about overcoming challenging times and it was so inspiring that I want to recount it for you here as best I can:

When a pride of African lions found its home threatened, a group of doctors and activists decided to take steps to save them. They put the lions to sleep and transported them by truck to a safe, protected place where they could roam and thrive. But when the lions woke up, they all refused to leave the truck — not one of them would venture out. So the doctors, eager to start them in their new life, put the lions to sleep once again, so that they could safely transplant them to their new home.

When we face a huge challenge, Nancy told us, we are like those lions — afraid to leave our old life and embrace the new one. Sometimes, just like the lions, we need caring people to help us take those first steps into the new life that awaits us. Then Nancy turned to us all and said, “For me, all of you here are like those doctors. You’ve helped me take the next step into my new life.”

What a precious gift! By telling us a beautiful story, she made us all part of her own story in a truly meaningful way. That’s what stories do: They bring us together and make us part of something bigger than ourselves. Bravo, Nancy! Write on!

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Overcoming Ourselves

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.
Sir Edmund Hillary”

This wonderful comment, well worth pondering, sprang to mind when I was chatting with a number of writers in an informal setting. So often, I’ve found, when writers talk about their work, they do it in an almost dismissive, self-disparaging way. This tendency takes many forms, some straightforward and some subtle. I think this inclination can be dangerous, because if we don’t value our work, who will? Here are a few examples I heard in conversations of ways in which writers tend to belittle themselves:

They talk about how impossible their projects are: At first glance, this seems innocent enough. We all hit rough patches in our work. But one writer I heard talking about her work kept coming back to how challenging the genre she was working in was. It was almost as if she was defeated before she started because she was attempting something that wasn’t just difficult, but beyond her. Why should this be true? If she works hard enough, why shouldn’t she produce a work worthy of many readers?

They don’t shoot high enough: One writer had gone through a rigorous training program but seemed to feel that what was accomplished was enough of a stretch and that there was really no reason to go farther or try to push the work that was completed to the next level.

They feel that if they aren’t working on something specific, they aren’t working: As writers, we all go through fallow periods when we are in between projects. But this doesn’t have to be a time of self-condemnation — it can be a time of discovery, of planting seeds.

As writers, the way we talk about our work makes a difference. While it’s important to share our struggles with each other, let’s also share our joy and sense of achievement. Let’s not defeat ourselves by talking negatively about what we do and how we’re doing it. And let’s remember that just like a mountain climber, it’s not the mountain we conquer — it’s ourselves. Write on!

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Something Wonderful

I saw this lovely meditation chalked on a column in beautiful calligraphy in Java Love, a cozy cafe where I met a friend for a writerly chat, and wrote it down to share it with you:

There is having flowers in the Spring,
Breezes in the Summer
Moon in Autumn
Snows in Winter.
If there is nothing worrying over you
It will be the best season at all times.

The Buddha

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