Donna Kelly Writes

Author, Speaker, Theater Critic

Month: September 2015

When the Writing Gets Tough: How Goodreads Helped Cure My Writer’s Block

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With all due respect to naysayers, writer’s block DOES exist. When work on my current work-in-progress stalled several months ago, I panicked and sought advice about overcoming the writer’s woe from all sorts of folks. Suggestions ranged from writing through the block to going for a run or visiting a museum to finding a good book to read.

Read, you say? There’s a thought!

I’d tried running, lunch with friends, meditation, and watching movies, but nothing seemed to pop me out of my slump. I knew I had to try a different approach.

I opted for reading.

After my daughter told me about Goodreads, I opened an account in April and immediately signed up for the 2015 Reading Challenge with a goal of reading 24 books by December 31. The year was nearly a third over before I started my first book, Burial Rites, a gorgeous novel by Hannah Kent. I finished reading my 24th book, Kevin Brockmeier’s post-apocalyptic gem, The Illumination, on Sept. 14.

I wish I could say my writing hit Indy 500 speed after finishing Kent’s book because her writing was magical, but my muse wasn’t so easily satisfied. A steady diet consisting of two dozen books of varying genres was the right muse medicine. Each book had a lesson for me and pointed out something lacking in my writing, knowledge, or way of thinking.

Here’s a list of my favorite “teachers,” their text books, and lessons learned:

Lesson 1: Without atmosphere and emotion, all is lost. About 31 pages into Burial Rites, I realized my book’s first two missing ingredients: atmosphere and emotion. I’d plucked the volume off the “New Arrivals” shelf of my local public library because I found the blurb fascinating. It was all that and more – stark, beautiful, emotional. But what grabbed me was how Kent made me feel the bone-chilling cold of Iceland, the desperation of its inhabitants, the humanity of convicted murderer Agnes Magnusdottir, and the fear inside members of the Jonsson family charged with housing her until her execution. I began searching my manuscript for ways to create atmosphere and emotion.

Lesson 2: Know your subject. My new novel revolves around two fictitious musicians of differing generations and Gram Parsons, a legendary pioneer of country rock music. My writing hit a wall when I realized I didn’t fully understand the evolution of the country rock. I grew up in the 1970s when country rock was already established and bands like the Eagles, The Marshall Tucker Band, Poco, and the Allman Brothers Band were staples on the radio. Wrapping my head around the concept of country rock and understanding why Gram Parsons remains a controversial cult figure were two big challenges. John Einarson’s Desperados: The Roots of Country Rock, is hardly the best written book I’ve ever read, but it IS a treasure chest of quotations and insight from or about the musicians who created a new music genre by combining several existing styles. Now I get it!

Lesson 3: Never underestimate the power of “What if?” and making your dialog count. I discovered the power of Brockmeier’s imagination and use of sparse dialog through two of his books, The Brief History of the Dead and The Illumination. This guy tackles some pretty wild, “what ifs” and he weaves story lines together like a super-strength rope. Everything counts.

Lesson 4: Pat Conroy’s writing still makes me slow down and linger inside books. Oh, Mr. Conroy, how I’ve missed you! I pulled My Reading Life from my bookcase where it had sat unread for a few years, and found The Death of Santini – a bargain for a buck – tucked on a shelf in my public library’s used bookstore. Reading Conroy is like sinking into a gushy chair and sipping a mint julep as the most succulent words in the English language wash over you. Yes, there’s still a place for gorgeous description and thought-provoking language in novel writing! Don’t be afraid to use it.

Lesson 5: Learn to hypnotize the reader with your writing and story. When I finished Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, I closed my eyes and sat still for several minutes in my silent house. When I opened them, I announced into the quiet, “I want my writing to affect people like that.” She transported me to an exotic locale that made me both squeal with delight and squirm in discomfort. But the ending was – well, it was one of the best I’ve ever read. I have so much to learn.

Lesson 6: Marketing my work is doable. I’d ordered Michael Hyatt’s Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World a couple of years ago, but stashed it in my bookcase unread because the whole concept of platform building overwhelmed me. With my book publication looming later this year, I pulled Hyatt’s book from the shelf. A fast, easy read, Platform gave me the courage to build a website with the help of my friend, Andrea Cruz; activate my long-dormant Twitter account and Facebook author page; join Pinterest; and begin marketing myself as a public speaker. I CAN do this marketing thing!

So, I send the good folks at Goodreads a big THANK YOU for motivating me to schedule reading time into my daily routine. In today’s busy, fast paced world, it’s easy to sacrifice reading for a host of other activities. Now that I’ve re-established my voracious reading habit, I’m not letting it go. I feel like me, the bookworm, again!

And this bodes well for my writing.

To the 20 authors mentioned below, I’m grateful to each of you for leading me back to my story through yours.

The full list of books I read during the Challenge:
The Illumination and The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
Between the Lines by Jodi Piccoult and Samantha van Leer
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
The Death of Santini and My Reading Life by Pat Conroy
The Prince of the Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafron
Mohawk by Richard Russo
The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve
Phantom Evil, Waking the Dead, and Ghost Walk by Heather Graham
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Partners by Nora Roberts
Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World by Michael Hyatt
Desperados: The Roots of Country Rock by John Einarson
Down by the River by Lin Stepp
Wildwood by Posie Graeme-Evans
Offcomer by Jo Baker
The Jazz Palace by Mary Morris
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Writing Through the Days: My Life in Journals

Beautiful journals hold the truths of my life.

Beautiful journals hold the truths of my life.

I’ve been collecting my thoughts in some form of journal on and off since I was in 9th grade. My earlier “journals” were mostly poems written for my first love in a red spiral bound notebook. They ranged from syrupy sweet lines of boundless affection to angst-ridden tales of woe penned after he had the poor judgment to break up with me following 10th grade prom. Then I wrote verses swearing off musicians and promising I’d spend the rest of my life in solitude.

Yes, I was a bit melodramatic back in the day.

Since then, my journals have changed in both content and container.

While I still write poetry and essays, my journals also contain rough sketches, lists, book ideas, workshop suggestions, observations, and self study.

I’ve kept journals in 3-ring binders, writing tablets, plain black journals with lined pages and, for a very short time, on the computer. With all due respect to Doogie Howser, M.D., journal writing doesn’t seem the same when done on a computer. These days, journal entries are written in beautiful blank books of varying styles, colors, and sizes. A tiny version is always tucked in my purse, ready to record my life on the go.

I’ve purchased many journal books, but others hold special memories of the friends and family who gave them to me. Some journals are significant because the words in them chronicle turning points in my life or in the lives of loved ones. Each one is an important part of who I am.

The photo above shows a few of my favorites.

  • The Book Woman journal was a Christmas gift from my mom, who passed away in 2002. She taught me to love books, read newspapers, and to believe in my abilities as a writer. I miss her and treasure this journal she bought for me more than a decade before I wrote my first book. She was my best friend.
  • The leather journal embossed with a Celtic cross was a Christmas gift from my sister Kate and her family a couple of years ago. We share a passion for our Irish heritage and a love of books. This journal has nice thick pages on which to draw illustrations and diagrams in addition to words.
  • My daughter Elizabeth has never been much of a journal keeper, but she loves finding perfect additions for my stockpile. The small purple journal with the beaded flowers was one she received as a gift in middle school. I found it tucked in a box after her move to Louisiana and added it to the collection she’s given to me over the years, including the pink and gold book she tucked inside my Christmas stocking last year.
  • I love cats and receive a great deal of comfort from my trusty kitty Bellamy. Last summer I chose a journal with a kitten on the front to take while traveling to Ohio to deliver my brother-in-law’s eulogy. The journal helped me find the right words for a tough occasion.
  • Sometimes I get stuck in the middle of writing a book and need to journal my way out of the mire. The blue and pink floral journal is where I wrapped my head around Gram Parsons and his contribution to country rock music. I dug into the lifestyle of career musicians and also discovered a few things I didn’t know about myself.
  • The silver and black journal was a recent birthday gift from a friend who helped me rediscover my love of journaling by taking me along on an artist’s retreat to Asheville, N.C. a few years ago. Our friendship has been through the fire over the years, but it has grown stronger too. I love this journal and the woman who gave it to me.
  • While in Asheville, I experienced a beautiful act of kindness from Mel, a young woman I barely knew. The trip was a turning point for me on so many levels and I began a journaling frenzy on that mountain top. One morning, Mel came into the kitchen of the log home holding her journal and the message imprinted on the leather jumped out at me: “There is no room for fear when you have faith.” I complimented the journal and told Mel the words were just the message I needed at that point in my life. The next thing I knew, Mel was tearing out the few pages she’d already used and placing the book in my hands. It was one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. I filled every line in that journal with heartfelt words.
  • This year I reconnected with a childhood friend I’ve not seen in decades, but she was one of the first kids I met when my family moved to Florida from New Jersey in 1971. Since reconnecting, we’ve installed a wood floor in her condo, cleaned out my closets, trimmed hair for each other, solved life’s problems, and laughed – a lot. Never underestimate the value of someone who makes you laugh. She gave me, In My Humble Opinion and the chuckles continue!

For me, journaling is playing with words, examining thoughts, making sense of the world, preserving memories, and being at peace.

Each journal I own represents a specific time in my life. I cherish every one of them.

Post Script: Remember the guy who broke my heart in high school? We reconnected nearly 30 years later. We’ve been married since 2007. We’re still  making beautiful music!

Maintaining Optimism: An Artful Reminder

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“Optimism can change the world.”

I believe this.

But I’m not so sure I realized it until I saw the words painted on a wall under broken window panes amid peeling paint.

I took this photo recently while walking back to my car after having breakfast with my son at one of our favorite restaurants on the edge of downtown Winter Haven, where revitalization has been on an upswing in recent years. Not only do I appreciate positive tag art, but the words painted on the dilapidated building struck a beautiful chord inside me.

I can say with certainty that optimism not only changed my world, it changed ME.

For most of my life, I was an avowed pessimist. My mantra was, “Hope for the best, but expect the worst.” I was a great believer in Murphy’s Law.

And I was steadfast in this belief.

Until I turned 50 years old.

Something about hitting this milestone age made me uncomfortable remaining in constant view of the proverbial half-empty glass and bored with my ever present Eeyore-style mourning. How could I possibly make my dreams come true if I didn’t have the optimism to believe they were possible? It was time for me to adopt a new way of looking at life, the world, and myself.

However, actual change was a long time coming. With all due respect to Oprah, there was no “aha! moment” resulting in instant Donna-changing optimism.

Sure, the decision to leave my career as a reporter to write books was a monumental change – one that took longer than the time I spent composing my resignation letter. It took even longer to wrap my head around the idea of practicing optimism every day, of looking for the good or a lesson to be learned in any uncomfortable situation, of motivating myself when the going became rough.

Could a book proposal rejection really be a good thing? What about missing out on a freelance job?

Yes, even rejection can be a catalyst for changes in thinking and lifestyle, for making one stronger. I began to realize something better must be ahead. I learned to focus on positive possibilities – instead of mourning what was perceived to have been lost.

I started to develop optimism.

The process was not a quick one. It has taken several years and required changes in my daily routine – waking early enough to meditate and journal, finding time to take walks and resume my old hobby of running, fitting reading into my schedule, and hanging out with folks who push me out of my comfort zone. I had to rearrange my thinking and replace the knee-jerk, “I can’t” with “I will.” I needed to uncover the paradoxical truth of feeling better about oneself through helping others – leading writing groups, teaching classes, tackling public speaking, writing more books, mentoring teenage writers.

I had to rediscover myself.

It WAS an ordeal. Change can be difficult, uncomfortable, and unwieldy – even while you’re certain it’s also positive and life-changing.

It’s sort of like the continuing downtown revitalization effort my city started several years ago. Yes, it’s irritating maneuvering around road construction and blocked sidewalks. It hurts to see familiar features removed to make room for something new, something better. Sometimes it’s difficult to see the future through the upheaval.

And not everyone likes changes, whether they are in people or surroundings.

These days I’m calmer, more confident, and definitely more positive about the future. While I’m more apt to reach out and help others, I’m also more likely to speak my mind, walk away from snarky people rather than tolerate their comments, and calmly defend myself when necessary. I’m also better at letting things go.

I like the change.

I like the evolution of downtown Winter Haven too. There’s a positive vibe with new businesses moving in, young adults becoming involved in the community, and a renewed focus on the cultural arts. Yet, owners of older companies are keeping traditions while looking into better ways of doing businesses. By combining the tried and true with fresh and new, Winter Haven is becoming a better place to live.

In a way, my city and I are growing up and maturing at the same time. Somehow, the thought makes me feel grounded.

I thank the unknown artist who painted those five powerful words on the old building downtown.

We can all use a positive message once in a while.

We all need to experience the power of optimism.

Musicians on the Move: Glass House Point

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About a year and a half ago, I stood spellbound among a gathering crowd in my hometown’s Central Park as five young musicians played Bob Dylan’s “Wagon Wheel” under moonlight. I’ve been following their fledgling career path ever since. Along the way, they’ve shared with me their experiences, thoughts, concerns, and dreams as I’ve molded the character of Coda, the teenage musician in my book-in-process.

Let me introduce you to the talented young guys of Glass House Point (from left to right in photo) – Dylan Methot, mandolin/guitar; Noah Feldman, violin/piano; Dylan Graham, vocals/guitar; E.J. Miner, drums; and Ian Campbell, bass. Unfortunately, E.J. and Noah were unable to be at the interview.

D.K. – You’ve been busy since I met you at Winter Haven’s Pickin’ In The Park over a year ago.

Dylan G. – It’s when we started to take off and be popularized. If we’d not gone to Pickin’ in the Park, who knows where we’d be right now. It’s where we met (mentors) Toni (Brown) and Ed (Munson.)

Dylan M. – It’s when the stars aligned. From then on, things just started happening

D.K. – How has your life changed since appearing at the Gram Parsons’ Derry Down event in June 2014?

Dylan M. – Once we got the band started and once we were really committed, it gave my life a firm direction of the way I wanted to go down the musical path. For the last couple of years I’ve had a drive to keep going down that road because before that my options were kinda open and I could just do whatever. But having some sort of purpose is pretty cool. It motivates you, especially when you have a solid group of guys who are your best friends too.

Dylan G. – It gives us an opportunity to make our own decision rather than do what we’re told to do. We’ve had the opportunity to join kinda like a subculture in which we can really express ourselves and make artistic decisions, and make decisions based on our beliefs rather than what we’re told to do.

D.K. – Last time we talked, all of you had different plans for the future. Where is each one of you at this point in time?

Dylan M. – I’m going to USF St. Pete. I’m going in undeclared pretty much just to weigh my options the first year and take the gen (general requirements) to get them out of the way. My plan A is the band and that’s why I’m in St. Pete, so I’m close enough so I can still practice and do shows with the band. I’m committed. I wanted to go to college so I know I definitely have a future and somewhere to go if things go awry. You can have a degree and still be in a band, especially in a place like St. Pete.

Dylan G. – In this industry, the way the progression works is so unknown. The way it unfolds isn’t the way you think it’s going to unfold. So I try not to figure out what my options are now. The one thing I do know is I love this band. I don’t know if it’s because I’m the singer or something, but I’ve kinda identified with Glass House Point to the point where it’s a part of me. So, it’s something I don’t want to leave behind. (Dylan G. is a high school senior.)

Ian – For the longest time it was like just playing music with my friends. We’ve all kind of found our bliss with the music and it’s kinda of like, personally for me, I want to keep it going too. Plan A, air quotes, is to be a rock star. Plan B is you know it’s still going to be through Glass House Point, but plan C, I’ll look at colleges, but it will have to do with music. (Ian is a high school senior.)

D.K. – How will it work with three of you still in high school while Dylan M. and E.J. are in college?

Dylan M. – It will be interesting. We’re so used to being with each other pretty much 24-7. Usually when we’re hanging out with people, it’s the guys in the band. I’ll be an hour commute away. I’m hoping I’ll be able to come back pretty consistently on the weekends. Hopefully, they can come over for shows in St. Pete.

D.K. – Now we get to what I’ve been dying to ask you about – the recording studio. Tell me a little bit about this project.

Dylan G. – After performing at the Polk Theatre, we knew we wanted to go into the studio to record some of our original stuff. Because I’d been recording our demos with some equipment I had in my home studio, we wanted the experience in the recording studio as sort of an ethos sort of deal, but also because we knew it was going to push us in a way we hadn’t been pushed before. So we came up with the money all by ourselves playing shows and working our butts off to get there. It’s been interesting for sure. It’s been a confidence booster. In a way now we’ve officially become recording artists. It was hours and hours of work. We’ve learned that a certain level of excellence can be achieved just by practicing our butts off.

Ian – For me, when we finished that last track it was kind of bittersweet. After all that hard work, all of the sudden it’s kind of like we’re leaving our old lives and starting a new chapter.

Dylan M. – It will be interesting to see how this new chapter unfolds.

Ian – I think what also really helped us find our sound was (recording engineer) Jonathan Gautier. He makes us feel like we’re honestly something special. I was having some trouble with some of the takes I had to do. I had to lay down some guitar parts that were ridiculously hard, incredibly tricky, and Jonathan was there to calm me down and make sure everything was all right. He was honest with me when the take was good. I feel like we’re something in there and that’s a good feeling.

D.K – So what I’m hearing you say is that in the time since I first met you in the park, people are taking you seriously.

Dylan M. – Yeah, we’ve constantly had to prove our worth with the shows we’ve been playing and the music we’ve been playing. We want to prove that we’re not just some band, you know? There are a million bands out there.

Dylan G. – We have to prove that this isn’t just some phase, that we’re not just teenagers just trying to get girls playing music.

D.K – Is there anything else you want folks to know about your recording? When will it be available? How will it be available?

Dylan G. – There are some things we have to pan out. A lot more time and money go into this than most people think. We’re not about to cut this and then drop it in about a week. The recording will be available for purchase in November/December. We have a lot of promoting to do. With promoting comes thousands and thousands of more dollars we’ll need to raise and funnel into the band. We’re making steady money now. But this is something people don’t understand: Glass House Point is in fact as much of a business as it is a band. We’re all business owners and, as of right now, we work for free because 100 percent of our money goes directly into our music so we can continue to push ourselves forward.

D.K. – How has your music changed since you first formed the band in 2014? Originally you were described as an indie folk rock band. How accurate is that?

Dylan G. – Indie folk rock isn’t super accurate. But we all love folk music and when we first started playing folk music, it was more like folk rock music with contemporary influences.

Dylan M. – When we started off, I was heavily playing the mandolin. Slowly but surely I started getting a little more into electric guitar, a little more lead kind of stuff. It took some time because I was not that good when I started. But as our music has evolved, so have the instruments we are playing. I have an electric mandolin, now, and an electric guitar. That’s been a change.

Dylan G. – The violin replacing the banjo I think has been pivotal. The banjo automatically locks you into a particular genre. With the violin, you can be playing fiddle kind of things and you can stay a folk band, or you can get an electric violin and you can be playing hard rock. The possibilities are kind of endless. So we’ve been able to take that and apply it to a freestyle type of music and we haven’t been locked in by a genre.

DK – What is your most memorable performance and why?

Dylan M. – I think we can all agree that Playing It Forward at the Polk Theatre was the one. Beforehand, we practiced so much making sure the set would be really good. We had like a little party at my house before. We had a whole crew of people to come over to support us. We rolled up to the Polk Theater with my old raggedy van full of all of the music equipment and they opened the back door and unloaded all this stuff. It was a really cool treatment that day.

D.K – What have been your greatest challenges getting to this point?

Dylan M. – I think one big thing that could derail everyone’s progress is doubting yourself and your abilities. Toward the beginning, I would not even call myself a musician. It didn’t seem possible, but we kept working. If you can overcome doubt, then I feel like a lot can happen. I’ve just been telling myself, “Don’t doubt your abilities.” It’s easier to doubt yourself than say, “I can do this.”

Note: Musicians on the Move will be a monthly Q & A spotlighting emerging musicians who cross my path. Glass House Point will be featured in this blog from time to time because the guys have been an integral part in developing the characters of Coda and his friends in my upcoming book. My plan is to follow their career on the blog as my book tracks Coda’s development as a musician.

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