A person sitting on the ground in front of water.

Early in my writing career, I became infatuated with writers’ social media.  It was huge!  It was exhilarating. There were blogs, magazines and chat rooms, forums, workshops and videos.    My email inbox soon overflowed with book reviews, conference and workshop announcements, writing contests and calls for manuscripts. Lists of “must-haves†“can’t misses,†“to-do†and definitely NOT “to-doâ€s’ arrived in droves from agents and publishers.

Every serious writer has a “platformâ€, I discovered.  So I built a website, set up an author Facebook page, a Twitter feed, joined Pinterest, Instagram, Tumbler and LinkedIn.  But this was only the barest beginning, I soon discovered. My blog and Facebook page had to be current and trendy, my  “tags†had to be carefully selected to  “drive trafficâ€to my sites from the top search engines.  My social media sites must be regularly monitored, “likes†reciprocated, posts updated, tweets returned, comments enthusiastically answered; all this to ensure visibility for agents and publishers.  My Facebook news feed was endless. Tweets constantly scrolled past my web browser.  My “Platform†had morphed into a demanding monster. Social media had become unsocial.

It was impossible to sort through this avalanche of information, much of which was redundant and/or contradictory.  One source insisted outlining is necessary,  another advised  simply to start writing.  There were advocates of starting a novel at the end, the beginning, or the middle.  Some said that a writer that doesn’t achieve a respectable word count  per day is not serious; others emphasized the importance of  reflection.   There were  videos and workshops on “scaffolding,†“POVâ€,  “Pillars,†“Devices.†  The jargon alone was intimidating. Everyone professed to be an authority.  How could I know who to trust?  And assuming I actually managed to write a novel in the midst of this confusion,  could I get it published?   Is my theme “hot†and trendy enough? Does it address the right target audience? Should I e-publish? Blog my book? Tweet it? Get an agent? If so, how do I choose one. Can I afford it?

I was lost in a byzantine social media maze. What began as fun and exciting had become a chore. In the odd moments I found to write, I found myself posturing; trying to appease the writing and marketing gurus now residing full-time in my head. I began to question everything about my story, it’s structure, the POV, the characters, setting and time period.  I suspected I should drastically revise the manuscript or trash it and start over. Or.. Maybe I wasn’t a writer after all.

I had lost my voice.

The suddenly one morning, I work up unable to speak.  Although I wanted to continue to  compulsively push ahead,  now I  had no choice but to stop and listen.  The timing, along with the absence of other symptoms led me to suspect a connection between my physical and writing voices. Perhaps they both needed time to heal.

A person sitting on the ground in front of water.So I “unplugged.†  I took naps and long walks  with Jake, my Boston Terrier. I journaled, listened to music, and visited friends. And I read books. Biographies, historical fiction, literary classics, modern novels, mystery, fantasy, non-fiction, books by great writers and poor writers. The Kindle store loves me. And gradually my voice returned, physically and figuratively.

I love social media. It’s given me writing buddies, mentors and a wealth of information.   The internet is an invaluable resource.  Writing seminars, workshops and online magazines are delivered directly to my laptop. There are online proofreading and editing programs,  templates for story writing and outlines for character development. Google or Siri can answer almost any question I can think up. These are powerful tools, unheard of as recently as a decade ago. But any powerful tool can also wreak havoc. I’m only a click away from the maze I just escaped.  So I identified a few sites I have grown to trust and respect and “unsubscribed,†“unfollowed†and “un-liked† the rest.   And so far I have resisted the temptation of clicking on every flashy new  site.  So far. ….

And I’m back to  my story.  After all, I’m the only one that can write it.

Rethinking New Year’s Resolutions

A person sitting on the ground in front of water. Most of my New Year’s Resolutions  over the years haven’t lasted past  the last winter’s frost.  So last year I  finally decided to avoid the guilt and let myself off the hook (Post 1/1/15).

But it didn’t feel quite right.  It isn’t just that New Year’s resolutions are a tradition, like the ball on Times Square on New Year’s Eve.  There’s something more.  Writing  new year’s resolutions requires that I take the time to  thoughtfully review the past year and to look forward into the new one.  Each resolve is  the hope to become something better than I am.  This brand new year will provide fresh opportunities to be a kinder, more compassionate, more balanced person.  In this new year there will be times to smile more; to be more playful and less anxious; ways to spend more energy on the people in my life and less on the“busyness†of life.   To forgive more and worry less.

So this year I’m giving it another try.  Maybe I’ll be more successful this time.   But  even if my resolutions last only three months; three weeks, or three days, it will be  time well spent. Happy New Year!

The “Write” Word

A person sitting on the ground in front of water.


“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.â€

Mark Twain



There are many reasons I should not write. It is hard work and it takes a lot of my time.  Closeted in my “woman-cave†bent over my computer,  I become unavailable to friends and family, my exercise program crumbles, meals are hastily thrown together, my sleep is interrupted.   And worse, I willingly put myself  in the path of constant rejection.   So why write?

I write because I love to write and I love to read.  I love everything about books: the covers that promise hours of enchantment, their heft in my hands, the sweetly musky smell. I love  rows of
books stacked neatly on bookshelves.  I love remembering first book, its colorful pictures,  the A person sitting on the ground in front of water.delight of  learning to translate the symbols on the page into words that conjured fantastical thoughts, faraway places, exciting ideas.  I find comfort in bookshops and libraries.  I love being surrounded by books and by people who love books.

I learned to love writing from my heroes;  Mark Twain, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stegner, Maya Angelou, Anias Nin, Jon Hassler, Amy Tan, Elizabeth Berg, Richard Russo, Barbara Kingsolver…and so many others.  Their words drew me in, not moralizing, prideful words, but  awkward stumbling words,  anguished, hurting words that gave voice to my feelings.  Thrilling words, words pulsing with danger. Angry words, hateful words.  And words pregnant with joy, melodic with peace and love. I loved them all.   Their words opened new worlds to me,  urged me to revisit old ones, challenged my beliefs, made me laugh and sent tears streaming down my face;  told me who I was and showed me who I wanted to be.

I love everything about the  “Worddom” and I want to be a part of it.  I want to provide a link in the wordchain to our children’s children and their children’ children.    I want them to know my stories and my truths. It is why  I compulsively, painstakingly, rummage through dictionaries, thesauri and lexicons for that one word that compels the reader to feel the emotion, see the landscape, love the character, believe in her.  And once retrieved, it is why I must measure its texture and its heft in my mind,  imagine its hue, hear its sound.  It must tell the truth.

This kind of writing does not come easy for me.  By nature, a curious soul, I am easily distracted by  the  “busy-ness” and business of writing;  intimidated by the daily deluge of blogs, posts and tweets, hawking elite and pricey workshops, conferences and retreats where I am sure to optimize my platform and craft a best-seller.  And  above all, I am admonished to devote large A person sitting on the ground in front of water.blocks of time daily to write, regardless of how inappropriate,  to write anything at all, no matter how nonsensical and vapid,  in order to attain my daily  “word count”.   Oddly, there is little in this daily digital tirade about the art of reading or the craft of writing.  I wonder what Mark Twain’s  reaction would be.  Somehow I don’t see him worrying about his Twitter account.

But, this is the digital age, after all,  and I acknowledge its importance as well as the need for marketing.  I maintain a blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account.  I read blogs.  I subscribe to writers magazines and attend a few workshops.  All of this is helpful and entertaining.  But  I have decided to spend what time I have to reading and word-smithing.   If this brings my truth to the written page, and if my words touch the hearts of a reader or two, it will be enough.



The South Travels With Me by Sally Whitney

A person sitting on the ground in front of water.Being southern is a vital part of who I am, a part I’ve never tried to disguise or discard. Growing up in North Carolina, I absorbed southern culture as easily as I inhaled air, and I thought about it just as much. It was my life; there was no need to question or remark on it.
The first time I realized southerners could be regarded as different, I was an undergraduate at Duke University. Although Duke is a southern school, many of its students come from other states and other countries. Not meaning any harm, they seemed unable to resist pointing out the oddity (to them) of our food, our wardrobes, and our accents.
Not long after college I left North Carolina and began a decades-long journey that included living in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, and New Jersey. I loved the people and the experiences I encountered in each of those states. My friends who live there will continue to be friends for the rest of my life. I learned from these women that we are more alike than different. Any preconceived ideas they had about me or I had about them were purely superficial. As co-workers, as elementary school parents, as church volunteers, we respected each other, even though our speech may have been peppered with different expressions and our food with different spices.
But that’s not to say I never had to defend my southern heritage. A New Jersey co-worker once asked me, “Why do southerners talk so slow?†Of course, the answer to that is easy: “Because we think before we speak.†Not a bad idea for anyone.
Most of the time—in fact, all of the time—my southern heritage is a blessing. Interest in people (chatting in the grocery store line always delivers entertaining tidbits), acceptance of the unusual (everybody in the south has a bizarre relative), reluctance to be rude in any situation (my mother would’ve disowned me if I ever ignored a comment made directly to me), and enduring patience (you don’t cut off somebody in line at the grocery store or on the way to the exit ramp) have served me well personally and professionally. As my son said when we were discussing the importance of manners in business: “You know, Mom, good manners are just treating other people like you want to be treated.â€
So I keep my southernisms with me all the time. I live in Maryland now, but no matter where I’ve lived, my sensibilities and my imagination live in the South. The short stories and novels I write are all set in the South, usually in North Carolina. And my leading characters are southern women. They’re intelligent, educated, perceptive, like many women everywhere, but they also have a vulnerability and compassion that I think are distinctly southern. Lydia Caton, protagonist of my new novel SURFACE AND SHADOW (coming from Pen-L Publishing in 2016) fights for her right to uncover the truth about a wealthy man’s suspicious death. Along the way, she’s drawn into helping the dead man’s mentally challenged granddaughter and his professionally trapped grandson.
She’s a complex southern woman—just like me.

Writing the real stuff

A person sitting on the ground in front of water.I write about southern women in the decades from the Civil War up to the advent of civil rights,  and let’s face it, that was a deeply troubled period in Southern history.   So  when one of my favorite characters loses her way  in one of the many conflicts and controversies, I want to rescue her,  to keep her strong,  to make her story prettier than I know it really was.  I love these women!  I want everyone to know how wonderful they are.  What if I get hate mail?  What if my friends desert me? What if my family thinks I’m disrespectful of them?  Maybe just skip the hard stuff.  Write a feel-good story.

Of course, this is the worst kind of hypocrisy.  And just the kind of platitudinous nonsense about the South that I rail against to all my friends who will listen.  What’s more, it’s insulting to  readers to assume they would prefer a one dimensional character to one who is flawed, who hurts, who is real.

Writers don’t talk about this much, so maybe I’m alone in balking at dragging my favorite characters through the literary mud.   But just in case,  when the story takes you to a painful place, like me, you find yourself staring at the blinking cursor and hovering over the backspace, I say,  let’s suck it up, hit the spacebar and tell the truth.   We owe it to our characters, our stories, our readers, and most of all, ourselves.

Artwork by Angela Marie Henriette 

Read, read, read

Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see A person sitting on the ground in front of water.how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.â€Â 

William Faulkner

Thanks, Mr. Faulkner, for that.  I can’t imagine not reading, and certainly not  writing without reading.  And you’ve made me feel just a little less guilty about that huge stash of unread books on my Kindle, especially those “guilty pleasures.â€

Reading was my favorite pastime as a kid, and my preferred reading spot was in a tree, as high up as I dared.  Mother used to joke that  to find me, she had to go outside and look up. Happily, she indulged this somewhat risky quirk because reading gave me a window on the outside world and laid a foundation for lifetime learning.  But  just as importantly, reading taught me to how to be quiet and to love solitude, something that has served me well.  The jury’s not in on the effect on our kids of the decline in reading in favor of social media and electronic games.  But I can tell you this:  It’s hard to trump reading a good book on a tree limb in bare feet on a summer day.  I hope they don’t miss that.