Collecting Family Stories

Melinda Ferguson Sherman

Melinda Ferguson Sherman

As I’ve been writing in my journal these past thirty-some years, I’ve often found myself associating events of the day with memories of my childhood, or referencing family stories I often heard growing up. Some of the stories are about me before I was old enough to remember them; others tell a story of  “the time when” my brother, mom, or dad had a funny, disastrous, or a just-goes-to-show-you learning experience. How surprising and enriching it is to discover new associations and meanings in old stories.

This experience inspired me to write short pieces of memoir with the notion of passing family stories onto my children. Otherwise, how would they ever know my family’s background, which is rooted in rural Ohio and is vastly different from their childhoods growing up in Manhattan and Long Island? In today’s world, where traditional family Sunday dinners, weekend visits, and annual reunions are not as feasible as in the past, writing down our stories is the only path open to those of us who want to preserve our memories for posterity and familiarize our children with their ancestors.

The same day I learned of my pending new status as a grandmother, I came across an ad for a book I immediately ordered: Unconditional Love: A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today, by Jane Isay. Having read the book, I’m persuaded that our personal stories are of priceless importance to our children, grandchildren, and future generations. All of our stories — happy, sad, tragic, comic, of famous family heroes and infamous villains — nurture our children’s belief in themselves, their place in the world, their self-worth. Children who’ve heard family stories are less anxious and more resilient in times of uncertainty.

Those of us who write these stories profit in several ways. We bring to our stories a more mature understanding of their meaning; we form bonds with the younger generation; and, in the process of researching and revisiting our past, are likely to reach out to family and friends whom we haven’t seen or heard from for years. We, too, become more connected, more comfortable in the world, and perhaps a bit less anxious.


START COLLECTING YOUR FAMILY STORIES WITH MELINDA: Melinda Ferguson Sherman leads the four-session workshop “Five Generations: Collecting Family Memories,” beginning Tuesday, October 20. More info

ABOUT MELINDA: Melinda Ferguson Sherman was born in Ohio and lived most of her life in New York City and Long Island before moving to Charlotte two years ago. She is a writer, teacher, and––for nearly 20 years––a journal and memoir writing workshop facilitator. She has written two books of family stories for her children. Melinda has a BA from Miami University, an MA from Columbia University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Southampton. She worked as an editor at Warner, Walker, and Macmillan. Most recently, she’s served as adjunct faculty at Suffolk County (NY) Community College and Central Piedmont Community College.

Not Today, Noonday Demon

Jessica Jacobs

Jessica Jacobs

Editor’s Note: Jessica Jacobs leads the new Charlotte Lit 4-week studio, In the Beginning: Exploring Questions of Spirituality and Religion through Poetry, beginning September 13. More info

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With two new books between us, my wife and I spent nearly nine months of 2019 traveling, giving readings and teaching workshops at festivals and conferences from Florida to Washington state. Our meager spells at home consisted primarily of recovering from our most recent trip while simultaneously preparing for the next one, our bags permanently half-packed, our pets alternately desperate for our attention (the dogs) or showily displaying their displeasure at our absence (no surprise here: the cats).

Then, 2020: We taught at the Palm Poetry Festival in January and after that? Panic, global and local, uncertainty, every last one of our spring gigs postponed or outright cancelled. Which meant that, fortunate as we were to have our home and health and each other, all our normal markers of time were gone.

In some ways, there was great beauty in this. I can now tell you the exact stages of bloom and fruit and seed undertaken by the blackberries, then the raspberries, and now the figs; the names of our neighbors and their much-more-frequently-walked dogs. But I’ve also floundered in periods of deep restlessness, having difficulty concentrating when trying to read or write.

When this besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom from one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s brethren…Also, towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our own lair, we become listless and inert.

Sound familiar? That’s not twenty-first century me talking, but Desert Father John Cassian, writing in the 4th Century of a frequent scourge of his fellow monks—acedia a.k.a. “the noonday demon” a.k.a. sloth, listlessness, chronic and debilitating apathy. A disease the British writer Sara Maitland called “the reverse sense of ‘givenness’. . . that no action or decision is worth taking for oneself, that no act of will can have any results, so why bother?”

Reading this text from so long ago that so accurately described my internal struggles, I felt not only a sense of transtemporal camaraderie, of being that much less alone, but also learned from Cassian a solution to what before felt like a uniquely modern malaise: make a schedule and keep to it, do work on behalf of others, give thanks for the specific moments of each day for which you are grateful while reflecting on what you might like to change for the better, and try and connect with something larger than yourself, like God or community or the natural world.

And so I’ve begun crafting a shape to my days. Between regular runs and dog-walks and meal preps, I’ve been editing and teaching, and, to feed my own writing, delving into Torah (the Old Testament) and associated scholarship and contemporary spiritual poems, grateful for the ancient wisdom, companionship, and inspiration to be found there.


Jessica Jacobs is the author of Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going (Four Way Books), one of Library Journal’s Best Poetry Books of the Year, winner of the Goldie Award in Poetry from the Golden Crown Literary Society, and a finalist for both the Brockman-Campbell and Julie Suk Book Awards. Her debut collection, Pelvis with Distance (White Pine Press), a biography-in-poems of Georgia O’Keeffe, won the New Mexico Book Award in Poetry and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and Julie Suk Award. An avid long-distance runner, Jessica has worked as a rock-climbing instructor, bartender, and professor, and now serves as the Chapbook Editor for Beloit Poetry Journal. She lives in Asheville, NC, with her wife, the poet Nickole Brown, with whom she co-authored Write It! 100 Poetry Prompts to Inspire (Spruce Books/PenguinRandomHouse), and is at work on parallel collections of essays and poems exploring spirituality, Torah, and Midrash. You can learn more about her at jessicalgjacobs.com.


Study with Jessica: Jessica Jacobs leads the new Charlotte Lit 4-week studio, In the Beginning: Exploring Questions of Spirituality and Religion through Poetry, beginning September 13. More info

Ramble Your Way Through the Pandemic

Cathy Pickens

Cathy Pickens

Recently, writer friends tell me they’re stuck, they can’t focus, can’t seem to write. One said she feels as if she’s withering.

What are we to do?

My pandemic solutions don’t vary much from my everyday solutions to living a joyfully creative life. The pandemic has just convinced me that they can work.

1. Turn off screens. No one needs a steady diet of the things we’re fed as “news.” And you’ve already binge-watched everything. If you can’t do a cold-turkey detox, at least limit your time with TV, social media, even newspapers. Be the adult over your own “child control” settings.

2. If you can’t write, now is the perfect time for what I call a ramble. “But I’m on lockdown!” you announce, indignant. All the better for stretching your creative muscles. (Not all rambles require leaving your house.) I offer suggestions but only to get you started on your own list:

Deep reading. An involved book with rich characters and an intriguing plot may seem too demanding right now. But give it a try. Research shows we’re losing our ability to concentrate, but deep reading helps—and lets us step outside ourselves for a while. My favorites: Dickens’ Bleak House (he’s surprisingly witty, not bleak) or Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (the first “sensation” novel and still a page-turner).

A new skill. What have you always wanted to try but just haven’t had the time…or the nerve? For me, it’s sketching. Of course it won’t be good. But it could get better. And I’ve got pencils and paper aplenty. My sister just designed and (single-handedly) built a deck behind her house. I’ll choose something inside, out of the heat. What have you wanted to try? Maybe you’ll bake. Or collage. Play with sidewalk chalk. Write poetry. [Not a poet? Find George Ella Lyon’s Where I’m From poem online and use it as a template to write your own list poem.] Stretch those creative muscles.

Reaching out. Life goes on for our friends and family and we can’t always be there. My husband’s close friend is dying. For him, it’s not a sad story. I can hear both sides of the phone conversation when he calls from Oklahoma. He’s as exuberant and fun-loving (and food-loving) as he’s always been. Something prompted me to write him a note, to tell him how his wide-open arms and big laugh always made me feel so welcome when I visited that close-knit group of old high-school friends. (They’re all pushing 80 now.) Just a little note. He says he’s showed it to everyone he knows, that it’s getting a bit tattered but he plans on putting it in his casket since they can’t fit his Sooner football memorabilia in there. Just a little note.

Even introverts like me need human interaction. So what if it looks different now? My mother-in-law (who lived through the 1918 flu pandemic and the Dust Bowl) and her siblings exchanged round-robin letters—so much more newsy and tactile than Facebook. Who needs to hear from you? In what creative ways can you reach out?

Exercising our creative muscles offers us certain delights for the effort: contentment, joy, pleasant fatigue.

And it’s just fun. So, what’s your ramble?


Cathy Pickens’ first mystery, Southern Fried, won the coveted St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic Award for Best Traditional Mystery. She’s written five books in the series, as well as Charlotte True Crime Stories and Charleston Mysteries (both for History Press), an essay on historic crime cases in 27 Views of Charlotte, a regular column for Mystery Readers Journal, and articles on writing craft and on business. Her most recent book is CREATE! Developing Your Creative Process (2020, ICSC Press). She served as national president of Sisters in Crime and on the national board for Mystery Writers of America. As a long-time professor in the McColl School of Business at Queens, she won numerous teaching awards.


Study creativity with Cathy. Cathy Pickens leads a four-week exploration into your personal creative process, at Charlotte Lit beginning September 14. Four live-by-Zoom sessions plus a half-hour private creativity consultation. Members $150, non-members $195. More info.

Journal Writing During a Pandemic

Begin now.
— May Sarton, American poet, novelist, and memoirist

Do you keep a daily journal? If you do, you know what an invaluable resource journal writing can be in times of crisis. If you are a lapsed journal writer or have never kept a journal, consider starting one today.

Journal writing is a means of checking in with yourself. It’s a portal that deepens one’s consciousness—of society, of the physical world, of the senses, of one’s inner life, of the spirit. It asks: How are you? How are you really?

The tools you need are (1) blank paper or a notebook, (2) a pen or pencil, (3) twenty minutes, (4) privacy, and (5) a little faith in yourself—faith that this act of writing is important for your health and well-being.

Decades of medical and social science research show the benefits of writing. The simple act of putting pen to paper is proven to reduce blood pressure, lower heart rate, increase the production of the body’s T-cells to bolster the immune system, and expedite recovery from disease.

Whatever your burdens, long- or short-term, journal writing can help you sort out your jumbled thoughts and feelings by giving you a confidential, safe place to let it all out. There is an unspeakable relief in having said all you have to say on a topic that distresses you. Word by word, the process of writing brings order to your inner life, which brings order to your world.

The COVID-19 pandemic prods us to explore and ask questions, whether we toil on the front lines—working in hospitals, food service, grocery stores, online teaching, and vital manufacturing—or find ourselves in lockdowns and quarantines. The situation begs us to assess our daily lives before, and during, and the unimaginable after.

Many of us have an opportunity to be more deliberate about the choices we make, and your journal is a place to explore those choices. What are your daily joys and pleasures? Struggles and confusions? What do you most hunger for? What do you miss—and what do you not miss? What are you thankful for? Expressing gratitude is common part of a journaling practice, and in times of trouble we need to uncover our gratitude most of all.

In your journal, write without judgment. No one will see these pages but you (and maybe not even you!), though you may choose to share some of what you’ve written. You can tear up your pages and throw them away if you want, but be prepared to realize that you’ve produced a treasure trove of memories that can be reread and perhaps passed on to your loved ones.

My mother was born in 1918 in the midst of that Spanish Influenza pandemic. How I wish I had my grandmother’s journals from that time! I wonder about the details of their day-to-day lives, and what I could learn from what they lived.

Try it! You can begin today. Simply write down the details of your day. No detail is too small to be noticed and appreciated. Day after day, you’ll be capturing and understanding your life.

A Little Bit Afraid

A hundred people gathered for a lunch-and-learn session on developing their creative process. Just a quick look at creativity as a discipline rather than an airy flight of fancifulness.

As part of that process, I encouraged them to fill their creative wells by seeking experiences outside their comfort zone, what I call “rambles.”

One woman raised her hand: “How do you know when you’re doing it right?”

In a flash, her question coalesced for me what drives my creative process.

The answer came so quickly, it surprised me. Only later, I realized its intuitive truth: “When you’re a little bit afraid.”

A little bit afraid. Not burdened by fear that paralyzes you. But also not bored or complacent. If you’re not taking risks, pushing yourself, how can you possibly create something that interests and engages anyone else?

Any exploration of creativity eventually has to deal with fear. When I ask writers why they haven’t started a project they long to do—and when I keep asking why, past their easy first answers about not finding time or not knowing how to start—it usually comes down to one word:

Fear.

Of what? Of failure. That someone will ridicule it (usually some specific critical voice they carry with them from the past). That it will be a waste of time. That it won’t be any good.

No, it won’t be any good. So what?

I’ve never met a creative person who loved the first efforts—even those with life-long creative practices, those who’ve enjoyed success, been celebrated. It’s never good at first—so what?

In my own creative work, I came to realize that fear wasn’t something to overcome but something to work with, to appreciate. After all, if I’m not doing something that’s important enough to me that it scares me a little, why should a reader care about it? Like the butterflies before I get on a stage to speak, if I’m not a little afraid, I’m not attempting anything worthwhile.

Harness that adrenaline, that spark. Understand its purpose, use it to challenge yourself, to bring out the best you have to offer. You’ll make it better later—but you can’t rewrite a blank page. Start with what scares you a little. The creative process starts there.

Putting Pen to Paper with Megan Rich

“Begin in media res, in the middle of the action. Begin in dialogue that allows your readers to feel the tension. Don’t worry about background or set up right now—just let yourself go into the scene.” With that, a rough dozen or so writers spend the next thirty minutes in quiet except for the tapping of keys and scratching of pen on paper.

Every Wednesday morning from 9:30 to 10:30 at Charlotte Lit, author Megan Rich offers advice and inspiration, along with a guided prompt to kick writers into gear. She leads “Pen to Paper” a free, open workshop for writers at all levels of experience. It’s a varied group—some are published writers working on memoir, YA, or novels; some not ready, yet, to claim the title “writer”—all benefiting from Rich’s gentle encouragement.

Rich is working on her third book, a novel. Her other works include a YA novel and a travel memoir. When she says ‘an editor will tell you to find your character’s greatest fear and write that scene’ or ‘an agent will want you to describe your project in an elevator pitch,’ she knows of which she speaks.

Each hour-long session begins with brief introductions before Rich discusses the writing prompt. She offers the exercise and then adds specific examples of how it might take shape. Maybe it’s finding inspiration in nature or how to build authentic tension in a scene, fodder for the next thirty to forty minutes of dedicated writing time that form the core of each class.  At the end of this time, Rich calls the group back together and asks if anyone would like to share. “Is there any word or phrase that gave you a rush of excitement as you wrote it?,” she’ll ask.

Rich is keen to help burgeoning authors recognize the initial spark of joy and possibility in their words before self-criticism and deflation set in. Sharing is always optional, but for the writers who do, Rich will commend a moment from their work, noting a particularly arresting detail or an excellent beginning line.

Held in Charlotte Lit’s airy new Studio Two, Pen to Paper is a low pressure way to start or re-start a writing practice.  Members are welcome to stay after class to write in the comfortable space. Visitors may try out the studio for free in the hour following class. Writing can be a lonely business but it doesn’t have to be done alone. It’s heartening to write alongside others who are trying their hand at creation, especially under the guidance of a supportive, experienced instructor like Megan Rich.


Megan Rich has written two books, a YA novel and a travel memoir, and is working on her third —a literary-fiction novel inspired by The Great Gatsby. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, she completed a thesis of original poetry for which she received the Virginia Voss Memorial Award for Writing. She was recently awarded first place in the Confucius Institute’s North Carolina Essay Prize for an excerpt from her travel memoir. Megan is a current member of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop Book Project program, located in Denver, Colorado. She has taught English and Creative Writing for twelve years serving diverse students in traditional and non-traditional settings. You can find more information about her at her Goodreads profile.

Staying in the Flow: Advice for Memoir Writers and Others

Gilda Morina Syverson will lead a workshop on memoir, “Traveling Home, Again:  Memoir’s Enlightening Path” at Charlotte Lit on Thursday, February 21st, from 6 to 9 p.m. Register


Only two years. That’s what I told myself when I first began to teach memoir writing at Queens University. I would do it for two years. My plan was to spend more time on my writing. But something happened. I not only fell in love with the process of writing my stories, but I fell in love with everyone else’s stories, too.

That was over 19 years ago. I am still in awe of what people discover when writing about themselves, their families, relatives, in some cases distant ancestors. We can write compelling stories by capturing flashes of memories, obsessions, dreams—night or day, an inspiring line from a poem or article and more. Then we take the thought or line, let it lead us as we write and write and write.

What I’ve told my students over the years is to capture the memory that comes to mind after giving them a prompt or reading them a poem. Do not think about editing, grammar, punctuation marks, and so on. Just write what flows! We’ll deal with crafting later.

I learned this process over thirty years ago when Natalie Goldberg wrote in her books about keeping that hand moving. NO THINKING ALLOWED. Not out loud! Although there is something valuable to learn about “Why not out loud?”

When a person says to me that he or she wants to write and starts telling me their story, I carefully, sometimes not so carefully, stop him or her and say, “Don’t tell me. Write it down.”

I’ve seen frustration on faces. Yes, they have a story to tell. But my intention is to get these people to their office, bedroom, back porch, or wherever they feel comfortable and put down that tale in written words. I imagine them saying to themselves, “I’ll show her. I’m telling that story anyway,” and then pen it in a journal, on a piece of paper, or type it into a Word document.

Ah-ha! A start! It’s where all writers—beginner or advanced—return to again and again.

Even though memoir (and poetry) are my loves, keeping that hand moving is a starter for all genres. When I sit down to write something new, brand new, I let it spill out—a morning dream, a cousin who has revealed a family secret, relatives from Italy who appeared on my grandmother’s doorstep. I let the story lead me where it wants to go. While writing, if Uncle Joe or Aunt Jane appear on your shoulder (metaphorically, of course) and have something to say, do not swat those voices away.

When it is time for crafting, editing is a creative process all its own. Since I am drawn to the editing process as much as the initial discovery, when I go back into the story, that’s when I play with the language, add specific and descriptive details, dialogue if need be, cut, paste, develop scenes.

The structure and spine of the story will slowly evolve. I let it lead me remembering what Anne Lamott said years ago when visiting Charlotte, that she edits each chapter seven, eight, nine times. It is in this process, where I get honest with myself or bring my writing to one of my critique groups; I can count on them to be open with me.

After all these years, I am still in awe of the stories that have grown out of people’s lives, their families, the places they have come from. I hope to hear a bit of your story one day—written down, of course!


Gilda Morina Syverson is an award-winning author for the memoir, My Father’s Daughter: From Rome to Sicily, and two poetry collections, Facing the Dragon and In This Dream Everything Remains Inside. She is at work on her second memoir. Gilda has been teaching and coaching memoir writing for over 19 years and is also on the faculty for Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab. She has recently been featured on Charlotte Readers Podcast.

How do you know when it’s done? (Or how I stopped hating and learned to love my imperfections)

It’s the perennial question all writers face: You’ve written a piece, and good as it is, is it done? Have you done all you can to make it perfect? Before we get there, check the entry criteria. I call them table stakes. Consider these five points first. 

  • Central point: If it takes more than one sentence (25 words) to describe what the story or poem is about, you’re not done.
  • Emotional depth: Any place you can go deeper? Balance inner thoughts, action and dialogue.
  • All five senses: Crisp descriptions and new imagery.
  • Point of view and tense: If you changed the point of view, for example, from first person to third, how does the story change? If you changed from past tense to present, what happens?
  • Strong characters and vivid setting: Are they visible? Can you make them clearer?

“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” — Confucius

The simple answer is: it’s never done done. You’ve heard that James Joyce was still making edits to Ulysses decades after it had been published. How Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 different endings for A Farewell to Arms to ensure he’d picked the correct one? Don’t get me started on Emily Dickinson…. You can drive yourself crazy. Here are a few hints to help you figure out if you’re done. Or not.

1. Put everything in

Be constantly on the lookout for subconscious gifts — those persistent whispers — it’s why I write. To get outside myself, to find that something extra I didn’t know I had. I call it touching divinity. 

More often than not, those persistent whispers lead me where I need to go.

Given free reign, I tend to get off track. I go tangential. No problem. At least I didn’t ignore the whisper; I took heed. Maybe it was a wrong number.

If you don’t write it you’ll never know and not knowing can haunt you. Put everything in.

2. Take everything out

It sounds counterintuitive. Hang with me. I can explain.

“Write a sentence as clean as a bone.” — James Baldwin

Let’s take it further: write a paragraph as clean as a bone. Write a scene as clean as a bone. Write a story, a chapter, a whole book as clean as a bone. Challenge yourself. When in doubt, take it out.

I create outtake files. Keep them. They may become useful for something else.

Here is the “kill your darlings” thing. Ask yourself: am I keeping it because I like it, or am I keeping it because it’s necessary? Necessary means it advances the story, deepens a character, or ties back to the central theme. If it does none of these, open up your outtakes file, and take it out. 

3. Tighten

Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect it isn’t. My first drafts are full of filler words, common phrases, and what I call fluff. Crutch words. If only there was a quick way to clean it up. There is! That’s where my repeat offenders list comes in. I have 40 or so fillers, fluff stuff, and crutches for which I check. 

But, you counter, what if filler words are there for a purpose; what if they help to build the voice? Voice doesn’t need filler words, voice don’t need fluff. Tighten. 

4. Put it in a drawer

Distance. Sometimes we need distance. You’ve heard a peer say, “It seemed so good when I wrote it; then I read it the next day and it was complete hogwash. Balderdash. Drivel. How can that be?”

You’re too close. It’s natural. What’s needed here is perspective.

Put it in a drawer. Literally, figuratively, whatever works for you (see hint 1). Pull it out in a week. Mileage may vary but somewhere between a week and a month is about the right amount of psychic distance to be able to get perspective.

5. Read it out loud

This one is new for me. I have friends who swear by this step for all writing, from fiction to essay, to blog post. Read it outloud and where you hear yourself stumble, your voice cracks, or a word just gets stuck in your throat, see if you can fix it.

Some would even say record yourself reading it and listen to it. I have to admit I have not gone this far yet, but I would love to. Your smartphone can record your voice. Your computer probably can. Try it.

6. Feedback

Bottom line: Good feedback makes you want to write more. If feedback makes you feel like not writing, it gots to go. Out out. No explanation needed. (Unless it is your editor, you’re under contract and you just want don’t want to — that’s a different problem.)

Constructive, deep, heart-felt, thoughtful feedback is gold to writers. Instead of saying, “this is not right,” it says, “have you thought about…?” 

Great feedback can sting. You’ll know great feedback when you see it; deep down you know it’s true. 

Great beta readers are earned, not found. When a reader agrees to read for you, you enter into a sacred contract. They took the time to read it; you owe them the courtesy of acknowledging each point. 

Show respect for their time and effort. Express gratitude. You will have a stronger beta reader next time. 

7. Tighten again

In the process of incorporating feedback, in rewriting, you have gone back to some of your habits. Run through the tighten sequence again. Doesn’t have to be time consuming — after all you already did it once. The heavy lifting got done the first time.

There they are. Seven hints to think about when you’re not sure that you’re done. Do all of them every time? No. Use discretion. If I had the time I would do each of these steps. Would I then be done? Um. Maybe? But I would rest assured — all the tools and methods I know of have been exhausted.

After all this, will I read a piece months later and see something I would have liked to change? Happens all the time. 

View your writing as a progression. Your imperfections reflect the way you were when you finished that piece. You will do better next time. 


Rick Pryll is the author of The Chimera of Prague (Foolishness Press, 2017), which won the Romance category at the 2018 New York Book Festival, a collection of short stories, Wallow (Foolishness Press, 1999), a poetry chapbook, Displaced (Foolishness Press, 1998) and a hyperfiction short story, “Lies,” that has been translated into Chinese and Spanish. A graduate of MIT, he wrote a novella to satisfy the thesis requirement for his degree in Mechanical Engineering. Rick and his wife, ArtPop Charlotte 2018 artist Holly Spruck, live in Charlotte. They have two children and two cats and a dog.


Join Rick for on Tuesday, January 29, from 6 to 8 pm to hear his astute advice for writers considering the self-publishing route, “Do Not Get Ripped Off! Tips for Self-Publishing.” Details and registration here.

Anti-Resolutions: What you’ll STOP doing this year

On January 3, from 6 to 8 pm, join Cathy Pickens for a FREE session to explore how you can make space and time for your creative work in 2019. Come celebrate the start of your creative new year! Space is limited, and pre-registration is required.


‘Tis the season for resolutions, to take stock of seasons past. Most of us dust off the old list: lose weight, make it to more of the kids’ ballgames. Or we just don’t bother, resolving to plug along as near-perfect as we are. New Year’s Resolutions have become passé, predictable, reliable only in reminding us of failures past.

This year, why not try some anti-resolutions—what you’ll stop doing this year?

  1. Stop ignoring what’s around you. Take real notice of the people and things that make your life run smoothly, more pleasantly. Take a deep breath when you walk out in the crisp air. Develop a child-like curiosity about even the most mundane. Write it down, to let yourself see what you’re thinking. Scribble on a legal pad or in the back of your DayTimer—nothing fancy needed. Creativity and “flow” expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests noting one thing each day that surprises you, as a way to awaken your awareness and broaden your focus. Talk to yourself on paper about how to solve a problem. Ask yourself “what if …?” and “why?” You’ll be surprised how it helps you focus. Be mindful.
  2. Stop taking the easy path. Try something that scares you—or at least stretches you. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, an object at rest tends to stay there. Conversely, as Matthew Arnold observed, “Genius is mainly an affair of energy.” Accept a speaking engagement, hike up Crowder’s Mountain, take a ballroom dance or cooking or kayaking class for fun, or work on that (writing) project you’ve been promising you’ll start. Each new task requires initiative and risk-taking for the beginner but gets easier—once you’ve done it. Get moving, preferably along an uncharted path.
  3. Stop being one-sided. Learn the delicate art of balance. Aristotle urged us to seek the Golden Mean, emphasizing the importance of balance. Where are you out of balance? Develop where you feel weakest. Read something you wouldn’t ordinarily read. If your bedside books are all history or technical manuals, try some well-written fiction or a book you loved—or wished you’d read—when you were a kid. Try listening to a book on tape (the library will loan you one for free!). Visit the Mint Museums. Turn off the TV.
  4. Stop sitting in the same seat. Perception can be more powerful than reality. Practice sitting in someone else’s seat, seeing from her perspective, testing your own. Maybe you, literally, sit in someone else’s seat in a meeting, to break the routine. Look at an issue from your customer’s or co-worker’s or boss’s or sales clerk’s or child’s or spouse’s or mortal enemy’s place.
  5. Stop being inconsistent. What do you value? What’s important to you? Would someone know your values by what you say, by how you spend your time, by the decisions you make? In trying new things, make sure you’ve grounded yourself, that you know who you are. Take time to nurture your spiritual life. Philosopher William James said, “The art of being wise is knowing what to overlook.” That wisdom cannot be gained in the push and pull of your busy life. Be still. Turn off the car radio. Get off the treadmill and take a walk outside. Be alone with your thoughts. Recognize who you are and what you value.
  6. Stop being so serious. When was the last time you felt inspired or motivated by a humorless drudge? Does the fate of the free world actually rest on what you’re doing? Okay, maybe it does. But you can still lighten up.

Oh, yeah. Stop promising to get in shape and just get moving. Hit the gym or the sidewalk. Getting enough exercise is more important than your pant size. You’ll need the energy for all the things you’re going to stop doing this year.


Cathy Pickens’ first mystery, Southern Fried, won the coveted St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic Award for Best Traditional Mystery. She’s written five books in the series, as well as Charleston Mysteries (History Press), an essay on historic crime cases in 27 Views of Charlotte, a regular column for Mystery Readers Journal, and articles on writing craft and on business. She served as national president of Sisters in Crime and on the national board for Mystery Writers of America. As a long-time professor in the McColl School of Business at Queens, she won numerous teaching awards.

Reading “A Christmas Carol” as a writer

“Marley was dead, to begin with.” From first line to last—”God bless us, everyone”—last week 30 people got together at ImaginOn for a joyous public reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. (In case you’re wondering, it takes about three hours.) The cast included 10 Charlotte Lit members and teachers, a dozen local actors, and staff of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

Each reader brought their own style to this timeless tale, making the text come alive. Hearing it out loud, I was able to appreciate the story anew. It’s beautifully constructed, and writers can learn by studying it. A memorable protagonist, colorful characters, plenty of humor, flashbacks that work, lots of conflict and tension—and finally, in the end, a wholly satisfying redemption.

Even in redemption, though, there is pain and regret. We see Ebenezer Scrooge’s wasted years. Writers might heed both the lessons and cautions Dickens embedded in the story: it’s never too late to make a change, even the most radical one. None of us wants to find ourselves an old Scrooge, having not done what we were called to do—to have not told the stories we wanted to tell.

Here’s an excerpt from A Christmas Carol, and a link to where you can find the whole story. Embrace both the tale and its telling, and you might give yourself no better Christmas gift.


From A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Stave 4: The Last of the Spirits

The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came near him, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.

It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible, save one outstretched hand. But for this, it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.

He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.

“I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?” said Scrooge.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.

“You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,” Scrooge pursued. “Is that so, Spirit?”

The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. That was the only answer he received.

Although well used to ghostly company by this time, Scrooge feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled beneath him, and he found that he could hardly stand when he prepared to follow it. The Spirit paused a moment, as observing his condition, and giving him time to recover.

But Scrooge was all the worse for this. It thrilled him with a vague uncertain horror to know that, behind the dusky shroud, there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, while he, though he stretched his own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.

“Ghost of the Future!” he exclaimed, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But, as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?”

It gave him no reply. The hand was pointed straight before them.

“Lead on!” said Scrooge. “Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, Spirit!”


A Christmas Carol is in the public domain, so it’s easy to find and download in a number of formats. (Here’s one, from Goodreads.)