The Secret

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could, once and for all, grab onto that one bit of advice that will make all the difference? In a recent New York Times essay, “The Art of Being Still,” Silas House writes:

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I was a young, naïve, foolish writer who was searching for my way. I swallowed hard and asked him [James Still] if he had any advice on how to be a better writer. He didn’t answer for a long minute, gazing off at the hills as if ignoring me.

But then he spoke, and I realized that he had taken that moment for quiet thought. “Discover something new every day,” he said. That advice changed me as a writer and as a person.”

The narrator Paul Chowder of Nicholson Baker’s novel, The Anthologist (one of my favorite novels), says:

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 And then a man of forty or so, with a French accent, asked, “How do you achieve the presence of mind to initiate the writing of a poem?” And something cracked open in me, and I finally stopped hoarding and told them my most useful secret. The only secret that has helped me consistently over all the years that I’ve written. I said, “Well, I’ll tell you how. I ask a simple question. I ask myself: What was the very best moment of your day?” The wonder of it was, I told them that this one question could lift out from my life exactly what I will want to write a poem about. Something I hadn’t known was important will leap out and hover there in front of me, saying I am—I am the best moment of the day. . . . Often, I went on, it’s a moment when you’re waiting for someone, or you’re driving somewhere, or maybe you’re just walking across a parking lot and admiring the oil stains and the dribbled tar patterns. One time it was when I was driving past a certain house that was screaming with sunlitness on its white clapboards, and then I plunged through tree shadows that splashed and splayed across the windshield. I thought, Ah, of course— I’d forgotten. You, windshield shadows, you are the best moment of the day. “And that’s my secret, such as it is,” I said.

― Nicholson BakerThe Anthologist

What’s your secret, such as it is?  What advice would you give? Or what have you learned from someone else?

Let me know.

In the meantime, I’m going to try to write or photograph (or both) the best moment of each day. Or something new. Right now, it is this quiet moment before our house guests arrive. (We have a lot of them here in Florida.)

A Note in a Bottle: Sending Our Writing into the World

During the last five weeks of our writing class (“Jumpstart Your Writing”) here on Sanibel, we’ve used the metaphor of a “note in a bottle” to talk about writing: the note as the words we write and the bottle as the container for the words. This bottle can come in many shapes. It could be in the shape of a single poem, story, or essay. It could be a collection of poems, stories, or essays. It could be a novel or a memoir. What about a blog entry? an editorial in a newspaper? a carefully constructed letter to a granddaughter? So the bottle is the shape we give to our writing.
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When we’ve written and shaped our pieces into some sort of container, it is time to toss that note and bottle into the sea. (This is particularly apt because Sanibel is a slip of an island on the Gulf of Mexico.) In other words, it is time to send our writing out into the world.

The very act of bringing our shaped final piece to the class, then reading it, and passing out copies to each other is the simplest and most basic way of throwing our bottles into the sea. We’ve taken our words out of the notebooks, shaped them into some form, and sent them on their way.

Some of us may send our “notes in bottles” beyond a class or writers’ group. Maybe we’ll publish one of  our poems or short essays in the local newspaper; maybe we’ll send a piece to our families; maybe we’ll submit our writing to a contest or a magazine. We don’t always know where our writing will end up, or who will read it, for that matter.781sunderland_Janetheadshot

Janet Sunderland, one of the contributors to the anthology, When Last Mountain: The View from Writers over Fifty, is about to toss her note in a bottle into the sea. We’ve stayed in touch since the anthology was published, and she wrote to tell me that her chapbook of poems, At the Boundary, will be forthcoming from Finishing LIne Press. She writes: “That goal [of publishing a book] has been elusive to me and perhaps for a good reason. Perhaps I simply wasn’t ready to take on the daunting task of marketing and selling a book. As writers, we love to write. Marketing? Well, not so much.” So sometimes it takes a bit more of an effort to get that bottle out there. But Janet has done it.product_info

And so have the writers in the class.

Getting our work out of notebooks and into the world isn’t always easy, but then we can move on to create more notes in more bottles for more people to discover.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” –Maya Angelou

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To find Janet’s book, go to Finishing Line Press, PREORDER FORTHCOMING TITLES You can read her bio and reviews of her chapbook. Congratulations, Janet!

Does It Work?

One of the questions that frequently arises in a writing workshop is “Does it work?”

When applied to writing, the question (“Does it work?”) is a general one; and the writer is often left wondering: does the story stop working because of a point of view shift on the third page or because of a point of view shift and a botched ending and a lack of clarity concerning what the story was about?  And if it doesn’t work for all the reasons discussed by the group, what then? How can the writing be improved?

It takes quite a mechanic to analyze all the ways a story (or poem) can go wrong. Besides who is to say for sure that the piece has gone wrong in all those ways? The stories and novels of William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf would never have made it out of our workshops. Faulkner’s sentences would have been trimmed, and Woolf’s point-of-view shifts corrected.

Would their writing have been better for such suggestions? Andre Dubus, in his collection of essays Meditations from a Movable Chair, includes a letter he wrote to his own workshop group. In “Letter to a Writer’s Workshop,” he says, “ ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ would not have survived us without a stubborn author.” He goes on to say that what is important is “that Hemingway wrote it and we can read it, and if he made mistakes, if he left things unclear, well, that’s better than scurrying home to revise and revise and revise and make it clear to everyone.”

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott describes a workshop where things got completely out of hand. An inexperienced writer had offered his piece to a group, led by Lamott, at a large, prestigious conference. His story was experimental, used bad dialect, and wasn’t very good. The other students mentioned things they liked, things they thought worked. Lamott offered a few suggestions for changing certain passages. The author raised some questions. It was all very polite.

Then one woman who had remained silent all along raised her hand: “Am I crazy? Am I losing my mind? Am I the only person who doesn’t think it worked at all? Did anyone actually think there was one believable character, one meaningful image. . . .” And she continued. Everyone’s nightmare workshop. Lamott goes on to explain that what the woman had said was true on a certain level—the story wasn’t very good—yet the commentator was a better, more experienced writer than the author of the story being discussed. Of course the critic was being honest, and what she said had taken a certain amount of courage, but had she really helped the writer?

Some teachers, students, or group members will always feel that they must be honest. The story stinks and, by golly, the writer needs to know this. Some writers seem to want this brand of honesty—or at least they say they do, and they say they’re better for it. Don’t writers need to know when their writing doesn’t work? Isn’t that what we’re asking for? Yes and no.

Yes, we do want honest feedback; no, we don’t want mild sadism. Workshops, writing classes, and writing groups are often composed of writers at many different levels, with many different goals, as well as different styles and voices. We aren’t all trying to be published in The New Yorker.

So why not ask the writer what she or he wants from you, the reader, the person giving feedback. Maybe the writer isn’t ready for the heavy hand. Maybe this is an early draft, and the writer wants to give the piece some air. He or she could pose a couple of questions—like “I’m not happy with the ending. What do you think?” or “Any ideas for a better way to start the piece?” Maybe the writer is near the end of the revision process and wants close editing of a certain part. The main thing is to ask what the writer wants or needs and then direct feedback to addressing that question. Then move on.

The workshop or group could encourage the writer to continue writing more stories or poems or whatever rather than trying to mold one piece into greatness. I’ll never forget a welder, a Vietnam vet, who took a writing class at the community college where I taught. He showed up in our college writing group one afternoon. Would we take a look at a poem he had written? He took out his billfold and drew out a piece of paper that had been folded and refolded hundreds of times. The edges were frayed; the paper had been creased so many times that it almost floated into the room in fourths. Then he read us a poem full of clichés and generalities. It was the only poem he had ever written. He looked up. “What do you think? Is it good enough for the college magazine? Be honest.”

It was the poem of his life, a poem that said everything about lost love that had ever been said or ever would be said. We could have told him that the poem was hopeless. It was full of abstractions without a single clear image. Instead we said, “Write more. In one, tell us exactly how she looked; in another, about the day you met; in another, about the way her mouth felt on yours.” Better to have written twenty poems about a lost love than one.

Instead of spending all of the group time workshopping each other’s writing, the group could focus on a certain element of craft. Spend time talking about point of view in several stories, then throw in one or two from Chekhov or Alice Munro. Then do some exercises on point of view. Or spend time rewriting a section of a story from a different point of view. In other words, don’t just talk about writing all the time. Write when you’re together. Rather than talking about the last stanza of a poem for twenty minutes, stop and have everyone write the last stanza of their own poem and then read it to each other. The same with the last paragraph of a story. This would give the writer some psychic support as he or she struggles with the ending.

Be careful about writing comments on the piece of writing. Teachers of writing spend years learning how to give comments–what’s too much, what’s just right, what will be helpful. Many writers in workshops repeat the red-pencil punishment of their own experiences with English teachers. These writers will make harsh red-ink comments on the story; they will slash through entire pages of writing. Maybe their comments have value, but it is the exceptional writer who can see many of these red marks and still have faith in the core value of the story, poem, or essay. Many of the marks might be simple editing suggestions, so be sure that the writer wants the fine-tuning that comes at the end of the revision process. There is nothing wrong with editing. Yet while attention to the word-level of a piece of writing can improve it, often this is still surface work and doesn’t get to deeper levels of structure, voice, theme, or characterization.

Coming together as a group can be a strong motivating force. We set a deadline; we bring in our work. We talk to others about the problems of writing. At times we love and cherish the company. We value the help of fellow writers who will ask questions and give us the courage to return to our writing and work on a piece until it sings with truth.

Yet we need also to free ourselves from a method of criticism that often can become harsh or tell us more than we can assimilate, one that frequently gives the leader’s word the greatest power, that may encourage a red-pencil, judgmental approach sending us back to some primal state from which we can never graduate.

Our goal is help each other become the best writer possible–to keep each other writing with the faith to revise and to value our own way of saying things. In his letter to his workshop, Dubus writes, “What is art if not a concentrated and impassioned effort to make something with the little we have, the little we see?”  And then to call what we have made beautiful with mysterious imperfections.

The Writing Workshop: Does It Work?

In this blog, I’d like to continue the conversation about how we give and receive feedback on our writing by discussing one of the most common methods out there: the workshop. Here’s how it often goes:

Each week one or two members of a writing group hand out copies of a story or poem to be workshopped (we even have a new verb) at the next meeting. During the week, members of the group read the writing, make comments and prepare to give suggestions for revision. At the following meeting, the writer remains silent, listening and jotting down notes on the group’s reactions. Usually the leader/teacher of the workshop (if the group is a class) adds comments, guides the discussion and tries to pull together the threads of the reactions so the writer has some clear direction for revision. Then the writer supposedly hurries home to revise the piece. At this point, the familiar scene breaks down because a successful revision, or even the desire to work on a revision, doesn’t always follow the workshop process. At least for me.

The workshop method is appealing because, according to its proponents, it allows for multiple responses to a piece. Yet workshop members often give their attention primarily to the comments of the teacher, who is usually the most experienced, or extensively published, writer among them. Or sometimes one member of the group takes the lead and dominates the conversation, while the others follow and add their comments to that one voice. Sometimes there is a disagreement over what should be done to make the piece better.

The little comedy sketch I posted by Mitchell and Webb condenses the workshop method into a two-person scene.  (See “Write This: Mitchell and Webb.” http://youtu.be/sifESist1KY. Posted on 10/30/12.) Webb, the critiquer, expresses multiple takes on a single piece of writing while the writer, Mitchell, sits silently (or almost, he tries to make a few comments but is over-whelmed by the power of Webb, the person behind the desk.)

So while her piece is being discussed, the writer is supposed to be silent, not say a word. Again proponents of the method say this is the way it is in the real world when the writer is not available to the reader to explain or respond.  Yet the readers of a piece in a workshop are not the same as the readers of a published piece. After a few cursory comments about the strengths of a writing, these workshop readers are usually given the task of finding what is wrong with the piece and are rarely as accepting as those who read a published story or poem. One time I took a short essay that had already been published to a workshop, by the time I left I wondered how it was ever published—there were too many things to be fixed! Also the whole method creates an adversarial framework, so that if the writer is allowed to speak she could become defensive trying to explain why she wrote the story the way she did.

We also tell ourselves that if we’re able to see the flaws in another piece of writing, we can better spot our own. But does it work this way? Am I becoming a better writer or simply better at critiquing someone else’s writing? Most of us (even those who lead the workshops) are not taught how to give helpful feedback to others. While we may have good intentions and spend an enormous amount of time preparing for the workshop, our comments are not always helpful to the writer.

In “Toward a More Democratic Workshop” (Poets and Writers, March/April 1998), Lex Williford tells how his story was shredded by a famous young writer leading a workshop. The young writer had opened the discussion by saying to the group: “This story’s awfully derivative, don’t you think?”  By the end of the workshop, Williford says, “My face burning, I looked down at my story, a thing I’d struggled on and off with for over a year, and turned it over on the seminar table. The famous young writer spent the rest of the workshop doing what he’d come there to do: to talk about himself and his stories and to sign copies of his book.”  In Williford’s copy, he wrote: “In honor of the beating we give and take. Thrive.”

In her essay,  “Mild Sadism in Writing Workshops,” Carol Bly tells of a time when one class member started the discussion of a fellow writer’s work by saying, “I may as well get this over with,” in a tone of pronounced disdain. Bly says, “The rest of the participants took this same tone when they spoke. No doubt they were experiencing what psychologists call moral drift, or the bystander effect: That is, you have various, slightly conflicting opinions on a subject, but when you hear others speaking in a single tone or with a single judgment, you let your thoughts slide over to that judgment the way iron filings nudge loose and then nearly fly to a magnet.”

Bly’s emphasis on judgment is a crucial one. I believe one of the main flaws of the workshop method is the rush to judge (this is good, this is bad) before a piece has fully evolved. We can’t seem to talk about art anymore without immediately judging it. We walk out of a movie and ask, “Well, what did you think? Did you like it?” The same comments are often asked of fellow readers before we read a book. Maybe we don’t want to waste our time on something that is not good.

There is danger in this rush to judge: it automatically stops conversation. People move into a defensive mode, an argumentative position. I remember Natalie Goldberg saying about a piece of writing, “Good. Good that you wrote that. Now continue. Write more.”  Certainly revision is necessary, but a specific judgment from someone else doesn’t necessarily lead us to a sound revision.

Okay. I’m going to pause here and continue my thoughts on the workshop method in my next blog. In the meantime, send us your thoughts, experiences, ideas. Onward!

 

How I Got a Life

Cherise Wyneken
Guest Author

“If the circumstances are right, suffering can teach and lead to rebirth.”
—Anne  Morrow Lindbergh

We were standing in front of a large window at the Miami Airport watching a plane take off with our last child leaving home. Barely into adulthood, our other three children had been left behind in California when we moved to Florida. What am I going to do with my life now?  I thought. Should I cry or celebrate?  A big black hole had appeared ready to suck me in.

Eventually I realized that I was now free to pursue my long desire to be a writer of children’s stories. I began taking creative writing classes at nearby universities. In the process, I became hooked on poetry and writing stories from my life. In time I sent my work out for publication. Slowly it began to appear in various journals, periodicals, books, and anthologies. The black hole had disappeared – filled with friends and writing projects.

But one doesn’t need to write for publication. Computers make it easy to run off copies of our stories to give to our children. My husband, who grew up in South India, has many interesting tales to tell from his childhood. “Write them down for us, Dad,” our children say.  When our son was reading one of my childhood stories to his daughter, she stopped him and asked, “What’s Johnny cake?’’ She knows it as corn muffins or corn bread.

When we moved back to the San Francisco East Bay, I continued my involvement with writing. Recently I won a prize: the publication of a collection of my nonfiction articles, Stir-Fried Memories, from Whispering Angel Books – a kind of blue ribbon culmination of my years of writing. The black hole has been avoided. I’ve got a life!

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Cherise Wyneken, whose story “The Daughter-in-Law” appeared in When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over 50, began writing in her early fifties. Now at 83, she is still active with various writing projects, including a poetry column for the Oakland Examiner’s online edition at: www.examiner.com/poetry-in-oakland/cherise-wyneken  See also, http://www.authorsden.com/cherisewyneken & www.whisperingangelbooks.com.

C. K. Williams: On Being Old

I’m feeling my age today. After a wonderful trip to Peru, I’ve returned home to Minnesota. While in Peru, my husband and I climbed Machu Picchu and visited the Peruvian rainforest. I felt downright young. We were on the go everyday. We were at the top of the world where matters of age and one’s aching bones were forgotten in the glory of the vistas.

On top of the world at Machu Picchu

But now back at home, I’ve come down with a nasty head cold–and well, I’m definitely in the valley today. But being laid low has given me a chance to watch this amazing lecture by C. K. Williams, “On Being Old.” I invite you to make yourself a cup of tea and spend an hour listening to C. K. Williams talk about what it’s like from the vantage point of an old poet.

Just click on this link:

After you’ve had a chance to watch, we’ll talk about his ideas in my next blog. I’ll be back to my old self then, and I’d like to know what you think.

Enjoy.

Good Ole Boy

I love family stories. I love being reminded that only a generation ago, our parents might not have been able to go to school. I love my new home in the South where people tell me stories at the Harris Teeter meat counter about how it was to butcher “back home,” and students in my writing workshop at the senior center tell me about priming tobacco.

Tony R. Lindsay’s parents were from rural farm families in the Great Smoky Mountains. His mother, one of thirteen children, was motherless from the age of nine. On occasion, her father would ride off to look for another wife and might be gone for ten days, sometimes leaving the children with nothing but potatoes to eat. She left home when she was twelve to live with her sister in Knoxville, and became a seamstress in a sweatshop at fourteen.

His mother never went to school. His father, one of ten children, got as far as the eighth grade. Twice, actually. His coach asked him to stay in school so he could play basketball an extra year. But the nearest high school was too far away for his family to consider sending him.

Tony grew up in Knoxville, but spent summers and as many weekends as he could in the Gatlinburg area, particularly in Cades Cove, a sheltered mountain valley that was settled in the late 1700s. His was a church-going family—twice on Sunday, Wednesday night prayer meetings, Thursday choir practice, Friday night socials.

He graduated from the University of Tennessee and, before retiring, managed several factories in various parts of the country. He began writing about eight years ago when he read a quote on his older daughter’s bulletin board at the school where she teaches gifted students: “If you want to be remembered after you die, you must do something worth writing about or write something worth reading.”

“I figured it was too late for me to do something worth writing about, but maybe I could write something worth reading,” Tony says. So he went to critique groups and workshops, took copious notes, wrote and rewrote his stories about rural people, mountain people. He wrote about Homer Guthry and Elwood Hatmaker, young boys exploring the Cove; about Lefty Goins, proprietor of a roadhouse and brewer of moonshine; about Bluford Nodding, “a dim-witted, towering sequoia of a man,” who was never seen without his Bible. Collected now in Tattletale Roadhouse and Social Club, his stories are often seasoned by a salty religion and peppered with analogies like those his father used. “Hawkshaw smells like a wet turtle climbing out of a privy,” being one of the milder ones.

When not writing, Tony tools around in a 1966 pickup and likes to boast “that his wife and TV both work.”

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Go to www.secondwindpublishing.com for information about Tony’s book.

Tell Me More

If I had to choose one book for my desert island writing retreat, it would be Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. Fear and laziness are sent packing when I read her words.

Brenda Ueland

“Everybody Is Talented, Original, and Has Something Important To Say,” she announces right off as the headliner title of Chapter One. She goes on to say how this originality, talent, and truth comes out when each of us pays careful attention to the world around us and writes from that unique perspective.

Brenda Ueland was born in Minneapolis in 1891 in a home overlooking Lake Calhoun. She returned to Minneapolis after a sojourn in New York where she worked as a journalist and was part of the Greenwich Village bohemian crowd (John Reed, Louise Bryant, Eugene O’Neill).  She continued her work as a writer, editor, and teacher of writing. I remember seeing her feeding the geese around Lake Harriet, another Minneapolis city lake. She was a swimmer and an avid walker, sometimes walking nine miles a day. She died at age 93, in 1985.

About her classes at the Minneapolis YWCA, she writes in the preface to the second edition: “I think I was a splendid teacher, and so did they.”  Her words capture her spirit and honesty. She is captivated by the unique lives of her students. She listens and encourages them to keep writing.  “The only good teachers are those who love you, who think you are interesting, or very important, or wonderfully funny, whose attitude is: ‘Tell me more. Tell me all you can. I want to understand more about everything you feel and know and all the changes inside and out of you. Let more come out.’ ”

I remember a Vietnam vet in one of my classes many years ago. He stopped by my office to ask if I would read a poem he had written. “I carried this around with me all during the war,” he said. He took out his billfold and unfolded a single sheet of paper that had been folded and re-folded so many times it almost fluttered away in the air.

He read this poem that compressed all his feelings, everything about the war and loss, into a few lines. Then he folded and re-folded it and put it back in his billfold. The poem contained all his anguish, pain, love. We talked about his poem, and I told him how amazing it was. “Now write more,” I said. “Tell me as much as you can remember.” His poem contained more than any one poem could contain. It was breaking at its seams for all the power it held in its folds.

Sometimes this happens to us as writers.

We write one story, one poem, one essay, and then carry it around with us.  We take it to every writer’s group or class we join. Maybe we change or add a few words here and there.  What would happen if we said to ourselves, Yes, I wrote that. Good. Now I’m going to write more? Imagine someone who wants to hear it all. Sure, we can go back and revise, but don’t get stuck in that one place.  Keep pushing out, taking risks, Write about the day you are living in. Tell me how the fish darted away when you swam in the lake with your eight-year-old granddaughter. Tell me about your friend who is dying. Tell me about what it’s like to go bald or to let your hair go silver. I want to know.

I started off this entry talking about a desert island. Sometimes I do feel as if I’m stranded on such an island of my own making. I question how I got there and why I ever wanted to write anyway.  Brenda Ueland finds inspiration from many great writers, artists, and composers (Blake, Chekhov, Van Gogh, Mozart) as she makes her case: we are not alone. And if we look around, it isn’t a desert island—more an oasis.

One of the reasons Carol and I are creating this website and writing blogs together is because we believe we writers need each other.

Carol and I could never have done the anthology alone. When one of us would be ready to throw in the towel, the other would be all happy and up beat. When one was busy, the other one took up the slack. We have done all this through writing. We have only seen each other in person twice: once when we met in Russia and once when we met in North Carolina. Carol’s blogs inspire me; she inspires me. I hope together, with other writers (Brenda Ueland, Susan Surman, Molly Peacock, Shirley Deane), our students, and other creative people (Mrs. Delany, Ruth Hodges, Lenore Latimer), we can create an oasis.  We can say to at least one other person, “Tell me more.”

(In my next blog, I’ll talk about what we do after we’ve written pages and pages. Where does all that writing go? But first we have to write!)

 

 

 

 

 

Molly Peacock, Mrs. Delany, and My Mother

At a recent conference for writers over 50 at the Loft Literary Center here in Minneapolis, I had the great pleasure of hearing Toronto poet and writer, Molly Peacock speak eloquently about Mary Delany (1700-1788), whose life is the focus of Ms. Peacock’s recent book, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72. After losing her husband of 23 years, Mrs. Delany picked up a pair of scissors and, at age 72, in “a mesmerized state induced by close observation,” created a new art form, mixed-media collage, depicting botanically correct cut flowers.  Over the next decade, she dyed and colored her own papers to create these intricate flowers, now housed in the British Museum and referred to as the Botanica Delanica.

During her talk, Ms. Peacock explored the theme of late-life creativity. “Our life’s work is never finished,” she said. “[Mrs. Delany’s] life shows us that some things just take living long enough to do.”

Molly Peacock

My mother, Ruth Hodges who died on June 23, 2012, at age 95, was also a mixed-media artist, who in the last years of her life created amazing abstractions of paper, paint, and even charcoal powder. The week before she died, she was carefully painting the ocean in a huge mural to be hung during Aloha Week at Trinity Grove, the nursing home in Wilmington, N. C., where she had lived the last four months of her life. She was as interested and involved and as engaged in the careful application of blue-green paint as she was when she created her wonderful paintings in her fifties and sixties—and seventies and eighties.  The application of paint to paper was a joy. Just as for us writers, the application of words to paper gives pleasure.Ruth Hodges

Ruth kept painting, just as Lenore Latimer in Carol’s blog never stopped dancing.

We can gain inspiration from the creativity of others who continue with their art to the end of their lives. Why should we stop? As long as the work we are doing gives us pleasure and engages our senses and our minds, why not continue?

Perhaps, like Mrs. Deleny and my mother, we will discover what it is we have been wanting, or destined, to create, to write, in these later years because truly “some things just take living long enough to do.”