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Michelle's Musings

We, the People

How on earth have we gotten to the point where a select demographic of parents who are uncomfortable with our Nation's history can dictate what all students should learn? Some of the very same folks who decry "cancel culture" are attempting to prevent children from learning the truth about the founding of our country. What about other parents who want their ancestors' contribution fairly represented? They're not exactly "comfortable" with that history; yet it's as if the opinions and rights of those "other" parents don't matter—as though they aren't real Americans.

 

In recent years, we've seen the return of an authoritarian, fascist slogan promoting the free press as "the enemy of the [American] people" on our national stage, a mantra notoriously promulgated by Joseph Stalin during the early years of the Soviet Union. While the slogan may have originated during Roman Times, it reappeared during the French Revolution of the late 18th century, and then resurfaced during the Third Reich's rule in furtherance of Adolph Hitler's decree that Jews were "a sworn enemy of the German people." It's a phrase favored by those who sought to squash freedom of expression in the form of opposition and dissent.

 

With the banning of books from our schools and libraries and the suppression of American history in classrooms, we are witnessing an organized, widespread effort to silence voices. Likewise, our politicians who oppose dissent of their constituents' agenda are in a rush to disenfranchise voters with gerrymandering in certain voter districts. While we still maintain the freedom to express our opinions, there's no guarantee that privilege will endure. Even if you subscribe to conspiracy theories about the legitimacy of our last presidential election or a widespread attempt to brainwash the nation's children, your freedom of thought is at stake. As a writer and citizen, I find that prospect a horrifying existential threat to our democracy for which so many have given their lives.

 

We, the People, must speak out against those who would try to silence our voices in furtherance of political expediency and power. We must use our vote as our voice to ensure the preservation of our democracy. If democracy wasn't so precious, tens of thousands of Ukrainians would not give their lives in its defense.

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Dangling Carrots

Getting published seems like a crapshoot at times. And I'm not saying this from the point of view of someone who's been unsuccessful. I've been published for several years and in various venues, including print and online magazines as well as anthologies. A humor piece of mine even won first place in a national writing competition. All of these achievements occurred amid countless rejection letters. And while I've diligently worked to improve my craft, there's more to being a published author than skill and talent.

 

I've been writing a monthly newsletter column for one of my writers groups for more than 10 years. However, I got that job because the organization had an immediate need to fill it. I was reluctant at first and even lamented having to come up with the requisite four- to five hundred-word count each month. But when I wrote my first column, I actually needed to chop off a considerable hunk.

 

My first contributing editor gig also saw its genesis in serendipity. I was checking my p.o. box at The UPS Store one day when the owner said she'd noticed that I received mail from various writers organizations. She was also a writer and was in the process of selling the postal mailbox business and taking on an editorial position with the local newspaper. She asked if I'd be interested in producing articles for the newspaper's magazine publications. I jumped on the offer, and several published pieces came of that chance encounter.

 

While my publication success is partly attributable to being in the right place at the right time, I must always produce a good product. But breaking into new venues on a regular basis remains a formidable task. Since the consolidation of several publishing houses, placing material seems even more challenging. We've all heard stories about acclaimed authors who were rejected by traditional publishers only to end up on a prominent bestsellers list after their self-published book garnered tremendous praise. It's been amusing to watch the major houses mine the indies for commercially viable authors.

 

As with many professions, success often comes down to a combination of talent and luck (right place at the right time, who you know, etc.) Yes, I've got a few notches in my belt, so you may ask, what am I whining about? Well, for me, any victory represents the proverbial dangling carrot and leaves me wanting more. Wanting more makes me work harder at my craft, which is a positive feedback loop that keeps me pecking away until I'm fed that next carrot!

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The Sound of Music

We've all seen images of children clutching stuffed animals to distract them from the horrors of Putin's war on Ukraine. We've also observed glimmers of positivity amid the horrific destruction and loss of life that plays out on our television screens. In these heartrending, tumultuous times, artists share their talents in a surreal juxtaposition of entertainment with devastation. Pianist Davide Martello traveled 17 straight hours from Germany to the Polish-Ukrainian border with his piano in tow to play music for displaced refugees. Images of his instrument of peace being wheeled along war-torn streets imbued a dystopian backdrop with a modicum of promise. Another pianist performed Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" with grace and poise outside a Ukrainian train station, infusing a sense of light and optimism into a dark and desperate situation.

 

Generous acts of kindness remind us of the benevolent humanity that still exists in this world in spite of widespread divisiveness and tribalism. While the stressed-out, grief-stricken throngs of escapees milling about these performers don't necessarily stop to enjoy the show, I suspect this music, in stark contrast with the shelling and explosions with which they've had to contend, provides a temporary bit of respite.

 

A fire of determination burns in the eyes of these courageous citizens who stand united in their fight for democracy and the future of their homeland. Likewise, the glimpse of humanity with which writers endear their characters leads readers to become vested in seeing protagonists overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. While the conflict's somber narrative plays out on the world stage, we hold our collective breaths in cautious optimism and root for the welfare of victims of this senseless war. Hopefully, our heartfelt sentiments are music to their weary ears.

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We Are Better Than This

Given the groundswell of efforts to erase significant portions of this country's history, as a writer and an African American, I'm obligated to advocate for preservation of truth.

 

During these last couple of years of racial reckoning and activism, some of the most powerful members of our society have ramped up efforts to whitewash and rewrite our nation's history. Those who would reinterpret facts to fit their sensibilities clamor about a return to "the good old days" as they see their false utopia slip away—a utopia that systematically excluded millions of Americans by virtue of the melanin content of their skin. While we managed to get past wholesale enslavement of African Americans, albeit at great expense to human life, some would prefer a return to the Jim Crow era with separation of the races.

 

White supremacist extremists have emerged from their closets and basements in greater numbers to flaunt anti-Semitic hatred and other racist rhetoric, sometimes through the use of violence. Yet in certain venues, people of color continue to be characterized as criminals, radicals, and un-American. We see a disturbing movement to ban certain books from our children's classrooms to mitigate the discomfort some folks have with acknowledging the truth about this country's past.

 

When voters of color turn out in large numbers to shape the outcome of an election, those who want "their people" to win attempt to nullify our votes. Once again, we find ourselves fighting for the franchise as deniers hope to invalidate the "mistake" of granting all citizens their constitutional right to cast a ballot.

 

Book banning, voter disenfranchisement, and suppression of truth are dangerous. Thankfully, folks of all persuasions understand the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, fact and fiction and are willing to stand up for what is just. We are an industrious civilization with a legacy of great minds that have brought us miraculous achievements. Think of all we could accomplish were it not for misguided tribalism and infighting.

 

Some say frowning requires greater effort than smiling. We could use the energy it takes to hate one another and, instead, befriend one another. Imagine the distress and divisiveness that could be lifted by simply acknowledging the truth of our past and addressing its ramifications. Unfortunately, if we don't progress along these lines at breakneck speed, we may lose our democracy that many fought and died for.

 

If we don't learn our history, we're doomed to repeat it.

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Wanted: Fresh Eyes

If you've previously visited my website, you may have noticed that I recently won a First Place award for my writing, an honor that I continue to relish. As a fellow writer, you understand the difficulty of plowing through multiple drafts of your work and then mustering up enough courage to send it to someone with a critical writer's eye. Imagine the gumption required to submit to a contest, especially if it's your first competition!

 

Two interesting facts about the award I received: The piece was never critiqued, but not for lack of trying. A couple of months prior to its submission, I and two other writers formed a new writing group and agreed to provide "gentle" constructive criticism of each other's work. We set a date for our first session the following month. Meanwhile, I worked on the short humor piece and planned to submit it to the group, but one of our members was hospitalized with a serious illness. We delayed our first meeting; however, with the clock ticking, I polished it on my own and sent it in.

 

Eventually, I received the judges' feedback about that piece as well as another I submitted last-minute to a different genre category. Let's just say the input on the second submission was not great. Upon re-reading the failed piece with fresh eyes, I had to agree that it was a bit rough around the edges. I even considered the possibility that I'd inadvertently sent an early draft instead of the final version. It was bad enough to lead me to ask of the winning entry, How the heck did I write something highly praised by multiple judges without having a fresh pair of eyes review it?

 

You may be tempted to think, Who needs critiquing? It's too demoralizing. After receiving my award, I momentarily contemplated going it alone from then on out in spite of sound rejection of the second work. However, I quickly came to my senses. In the end, the sum of these responses gave me greater confidence in my ability to write well.

 

We all produce cringe-worthy work, but we may not appreciate the necessity for revision until we show it to others. So, as you plug away at your craft, consider sharing your work with a pair of fresh eyes, and try submitting to a contest. The practice will improve your writing and help you become better equipped to handle constructive criticism, which is indispensable in this industry.

 

Cheers for the New Year! May you write your new best work in 2022.

True Confessions, Part 4

As promised, I'm going to reveal a juicy nugget from my recent conversation with my aunt. I spoke with her as part of the research I'm doing for my memoir. In recent posts, I stated that I had only snippets of memories to go on. I've since read articles on memoir writing and was heartened to learn that it's fine to jump around a bit and go back and forth with the timeline. This seems to work well with what I'm laying out and affords a bit of reprieve to some of my more heavy-duty scenes.

 

But before I reveal that golden nugget with which I plan to open my memoir, I'm plugging an essay of mine that just appeared in an online publication called Blended Future Project. The piece is titled "Person of Color" and provides a snapshot into my contemplation of race from an early age. To read it, click here.

 

Now, back to my memoir project. I recently spoke with my aunt for the first time in years. She started our two-and-a-half conversation with a recollection of when she and her younger sister (both teenagers and younger than my mother at the time) were on their way to my home to babysit me and my younger sister. I was about five, but I have no memory of being babysat by them. Anyway, my aunt began this way: "I knew something was wrong when I saw you sitting on the curb two blocks from your home. I said, 'Look at the baby! Why is she sitting by herself in the street?'" My aunt then proceeded to begin another story without elucidating what was "wrong" in my home. Though I had a pretty good idea, I stopped her in her tracks and asked her to expand. I wanted objective confirmation of my suspicion.

 

When I subsequently sat down to write the opening chapter of my memoir, I called upon the old adage that a good story starts in medias res—in the middle of the action. I ended up using what is undoubtedly the most poignant of my childhood memories—my separation from my mother. My aunt's moving tidbit about finding me on a street curb also fits the bill, but I'm using it later in the first chapter (yes, I've already written several chapters).

 

I was once told by a writing instructor that I'm a master at creating tension. I'm sure there was some hyperbole involved there, but I like to think he was on to something. In the interest of keeping you hanging, that's all I'm disclosing at this point. But please don't hate on me! I've certainly opened Pandora's box, so let this be an indication of how much suspense you can expect in my memoir. This won't be easy, but I'm going to push through this journey of reliving heartache and pain with the goal of coming through transformed for the better. That journey and transformation will, hopefully, also be had by my readers.

 

Meanwhile, I'll give myself a bit of sage advice: Take deep breaths, and then get on with it...

True Confessions, Part 3

My comments for this third installment of my "True Confessions" posts focuses on the memoir I'm developing, which I alluded to at the beginning and end of installment number two.

 

The beginning and end. For my memoir-in-progress, I have an idea where to begin, and I have multiple options for its conclusion. However, if I'm going to be honest, I haven't yet figured out a through line, although my goal is to inspire others seeking survival and triumph amid adversity. As previously mentioned, I've written snippets or mini chapters of my recollections to get my thoughts down on paper. However, I need to tie them together with a connecting theme so I can provide the reader with a satisfying story.

 

I made an inroad since last month's blog post by contacting an aunt with whom I've had little interaction over the years. I informed her of my desire to know more about my upbringing and possibly gain insights into how I survived a highly dysfunctional environment. Surprisingly, she agreed to answer all my questions. We set a date, and I made the phone call, not knowing what to expect. My aunt opened the conversation by apologizing for anything she did or did not do to help my siblings and me during our struggles, which indicated that this discussion would be cathartic for her. Thankful for her willingness to have this conversation, I told her that no apology was necessary. She then gave an effluent monologue of the first 20 or so years of her life.

 

My aunt hardly took a breath between words as she recounted details of those years, confirming that the little I do remember of those tumultuous times is factual and not post-traumatic figments of my imagination. Then, I filled in details of which she wasn't aware but were consistent with her knowledge. It was the only time she was dead-silent. I could hear the proverbial pin drop on the other side of the phone line.

 

After nearly two and a half hours of back-and-forth and notetaking on my part, we agreed to resume our discussion at a later time. It's been three weeks now, and I've yet to pore through my notes, annotate, and write follow-up questions in preparation for our next talk. But I'm getting there.

 

The moral of this blog post? You never know who's willing to talk unless you ask!

 

Note - This third blog installment turned out to be longer than anticipated (sound familiar?), so I'm ending here and saving a juicy nugget of a revelation from the aforementioned discussion for next month in what should be my final post in my "True Confessions" series. To think that I initially anticipated only one or two installments—I might need a fifth, but I don't intend to write my memoir here!

True Confessions, Part 2

As promised, here is the second of three installments of my "True Confessions" posts.

 

So, the novel is set aside for now, and I plan to resume writing a memoir—though you may ask, How can you tackle something of that length when you just shelved the novel because its length hampered progress with your other projects? The answer is that I'm writing the memoir in snippet format. That is, as ideas come to me, I write an essay-length piece and file it away. When I'm ready for the next "chapter," I sit down to produce another contribution, which may not necessarily connect in linear fashion with the last piece. While each chapter stands on its own, I do intend to pull a unifying thread through.

 

I will also continue drafting personal essays for submission to contests, newspapers, etc. In the meantime, I've learned of my 1st place win in the 2021 SouthWest Writers Contest for a humor piece I submitted! This win is incredibly gratifying; however, some of you who sense that I'm more of a serious-minded individual may wonder when I first entertained the concept of being a humorist. Indeed, I take any work I do seriously and give it my all. However, I must admit that I've posed this question to myself more than once. I must also confess that I'm not entirely certain of the answer.

 

I have a couple of theories about the development of my humor voice. For one, I've long been able to see the comedic side of ordinary life situations with which most of us identify and commiserate. As an ardent golfer, I often come across scenarios rife with fodder for humor prose—although I don't always see humor in a golf round and end up telling myself that I should never have gotten out of bed! I plan to create a collection of these anecdotes (some of which have already been published) in book form that would, hopefully, find a home at golf clubs or in retail golf shops.

 

The second theory I'll share is that as dark as my memoir will likely turn out to be, and as dark as the novel is, for that matter, humor may have become a form of respite for my writing brain to protect it from being mired in the abyss too long. Whatever the case, some time had passed before I understood that others appreciate my quick wit and one-liners as much as I enjoy producing them. Whether my humor represents some sort of coping skill or raw talent, or both, at least others find my work funny. I confess that appreciating my humor means a lot to me!

 

See you next month for installment number three of "True Confessions."

True Confessions, Part 1

For the last several years, I've worked on multiple iterations and rewrites of my novel, Hide and Seek. I just completed another revision, but the truth of the matter is that the time-consuming nature of this process is hampering my progress with other projects that I'm anxious to pursue. While I'm not throwing in the towel, I'm going to shelve my novel for a bit to make time for shorter nonfiction pieces.

 

As I slogged through novel revisions, I learned a lot about myself as a writer, including that I have difficulty focusing on a project of that length for long stretches of time. That same struggle with focus has also prevented me from being an ardent reader, which is something I've been reluctant to admit. If you've read my earlier blogs, you may recall that I attributed these impediments to dyslexia. Looking back over several decades, I better understand why my class studies were more difficult than they should have been and why I heavily relied upon memorization to pass my exams, which I often struggled to complete in the allotted time.

 

Typing sometimes frustrates me to the point that I curse my hands or pound my fist onto my desk because of my inability to get through a single paragraph without transposing "f" with "g" or "v" with "b" or "x" with "z" or entire words, even. The same goes for handwriting. I reread and correct my work ad nauseam, which bodes well for revisions of my writing projects that I patiently carry out until I can read through an entire manuscript without cringing. As a result, my work is fairly "clean" upon submission. But perseveration often interferes with my narrative flow, particularly in a long piece of fiction, which is why I find writing nonfiction more gratifying. The words seem to pour onto the pages. And, oh my, have I got a lot to say...

 

(At the first writing of this blog post, my thoughts and feelings flowed out of my fingertips like a gushing waterfall, and I soon realized that it was going to be much longer than prior posts. Lest you become disenchanted with too long of a read here, I've parceled this tome into three segments. So stay tuned for next month's installment (#2) of "True Confessions.")

 

Happily Ever After?

In 1933 under Nazi Germany, an infamous public book burning took place as a radical display of censorship and intolerance. Blacklisted works by literary and political figures, including Ernest Hemingway, were targeted for the flames. After the destruction of these books, the Nazi regime raided libraries, bookstores, and publishers' warehouses to destroy other works it deemed un-German (cited from Holocaust Encyclopedia, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum).

 

Because the veracity of science is increasingly questioned these days, preservation of truth and science-based facts remains paramount. As disinformation spreads falsehoods in alarming and detrimental fashion, we must remain vigilant and discerning of what we consume from social and television media. We must be wary of those who would stifle our attempts to impart knowledge that discounts such disinformation.

 

In fiction writing, it's rather ordinary to make stuff up. Fantasy and magical realism are popular among readers, and some writers claim both fiction and non-fiction as their genres. Surrealism may be juxtaposed or conflated with realism. In the end, no matter your genre, protagonist, or writing style, the goal is to impart information to a receptive audience.

 

Thankfully, we still retain the protection of our First Amendment right. However, some political leaders have made attempts to squelch that right when it comes to accurate representation of historical facts that are sometimes unpleasant at best. For example, they'd rather we not know the truly treacherous nature of the enslavement of African Americans.

 

Suppression of knowledge by elected officials is antithetical to our Constitution's First Amendment. Surely, none of us wants to revisit an era where free thought and expression of ideas is inappropriately suppressed for any reason, let alone political ones. Going down that rabbit hole is not likely to generate an ending wherein all parties live "happily ever after."