Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What's a writing lesson you didn't learn in school? (09/15/06)

Featured writer: Mimi Ghez

Contributors this month:
Arlene Mandell
Betty Winslow
Charlene Bunas
Charles Markee
Christine Falcone
Claudia Larson
Frances Jaekle
Jane Merryman
Ken Rodgers
Mark Sloan
Mimi Ghez
Susan Bono

Mimi Ghez

I wish a voice had whispered in my ear: Get up early, make yourself a cup of coffee, and sit down at your desk at the same time every day. Turn on your computer. Stare at it if you have to. Doodle if you feel inspired. But sit there, don't go anywhere, for an hour. Sit there when your mind is as blank as the screen. Stay there long enough to write a few words, even if they are distant cousins of your best work, twice removed. Write something, anything, even when you don't feel like writing, when your characters are on strike and your plot line is more like a trapezoid, when the urge to check your email account is as powerful as chocolate's siren lure. Sit there, stay there, once a day. When you live the life of a real writer, then you'll know what it is to create a work of art.

Mimi Ghez is a writer living in Washington, DC. She can be reached at Her previous work has been published in the "San Francisco Chronicle," "MediaFil" and by "Sage Publications," and she was named Illinois Poet Laureate junior by poet Gwendolyn Brooks. She doesn't always practice what she preaches.

Arlene Mandell

Endings are the most challenging part of any story. I remember telling my Creative Writing students at William Paterson University that the last line would/should stay with the reader.

But how? We've all read some endings that are too cute or too clever, and others that are flat or unsurprising. F. Scott Fitzgerald in "The Great Gatsby" had the answer long ago with the symbolic green light at the end of the pier, which he introduced early in the story and returned to for a gorgeous finale. Did the green light stand for the wealth just out of his reach? I read the novel in 1956 and still revisit that scene.

Allan Gurganus, author of "The Oldest Living Confederate Widow," sums up the ending dilemma with this advice: "End each story with an image. It lasts longer."

Since the green light has obviously and famously been used, I will end this little lesson with another image: My very own Gatsby racing up a Norway spruce at twilight, claws grappling, white coat gleaming, tail twitching, to catch an arrogant, chattering blue jay who takes off with a scornful shriek. It's fraught with symbolism: Our desire to climb higher in life, our need to vanquish enemies, the futility of it all.

Now if only I had a story to go with it.

Arlene L. Mandell is writing the seemingly endless memoir in Santa Rosa, CA.

Betty Winslow

That perseverance and marketing savvy, added to at least some decent writing skill, can take you further than tremendous talent and a complete lack of confidence and business know-how. It may sound cynical, but it's nevertheless true in many cases, that who you know and how willing you are to face repeated rejection can take you places that your writing alone won't. I know there are many writers out there that can write better than I can, but they aren't published because they're afraid to be rejected, afraid to fail, afraid to seem too sure of themselves, afraid that they have nothing to say.

Me? I know I have something to say, something unlike anything anyone else can say, because they aren't me. I figure, if I'm not sure of myself, who will be? And if I'm not convinced that my work can make a difference in the world and I owe it to my fellow man to keep trying to get it out there, who will be? And I'm not afraid to be rejected - they're rejecting a product, not me, and even if they are rejecting me, so what? They're entitled to their own opinion, as I am to mine.

That sounds awfully conceited, I know, but I look at whatever skill and imagination I have as gifts from God, gifts I didn't earn, that I'm responsible to use to the best of my ability to make a mark for Him on His creation. (That doesn't mean I write a lot of "religious" or "spiritual"
stuff - very little, right now, in fact - but that I always write from a worldview that gives God the honor and glory He deserves.)

And since I don't believe I earned whatever talent I have or that it makes me better than anyone else, I can't very well be puffed up about it. Yes, I'm proud of what I've done, but all too often I re-read something I've written and end up thinking to myself, "Wow, that's really good - better than I am capable of!" And then all I can say is, "Thank you, God!"

Betty Winslow is a regular contributor to "Searchlights & Signal Flares." She lives in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Charlene Bunas

What I learned in writers' groups:
1. Writers write. And read.
2. Writing is a discipline. Like dieting, saving money or exercising, the successful writer adheres to a regimen of daily discipline.
3. Writers re-write. This is what separates the rough stones from the polished gems.
4. In order to publish, the writer needs to submit.
5. Clips are essential. So is a good query letter.

What I didn't learn in writers' groups:
1.How to think of myself as a writer without denigrating my efforts. How to take my writing seriously, putting it in the top priority class, rather than something to do when all else has been done for the day, week, month.
2. How to incorporate motivation on a daily basis. For me, music works, alone time/space works, free association writing works - sometimes.
3. Because I think of my writing more as a stone than a gem, re-write is my largest hurdle.
4. A organized method of submission.
5. How to set up a web-site which would offer links to my essays and columns.

Charlene Bunas continues to learn in Santa Rosa, CA.

Charles Markee

How to enjoy rejections as a kind of progress, even the ones that arrive on embarrassing small slips of paper that have been Xeroxed so many times they're hard to read. Last week I got one that was cut out and pasted to my SASE post card.

How to remember that critical thing I was writing when the phone rings ten times in two hours - some sheriff's circus donation, a computer generated political endorsement, did I renew my membership, four calls from the kids down the street playing with the phone and three wrong numbers.

However, more seriously, along the tortuous path of writing a novel (or two), a couple of processes have evolved that I didn't learn in school. Outlining is first. No one mentioned outlining to me as a way to track characters and control logistical relationships. And when I outline my own work and tape it together in a long sheet, I see it in a different way, kind of a macroscope that lifts me out of the work and enables me to see its progression. Then on this long sheet, I can draw flows in different colored pencils for character appearances, event sequences and other important connections that have relationships. Problems pop out eager to be fixed. It's also a godsend during revision to have this overview so that important connections aren't lost or corrupted in the process of change.

The second thing is an approach that's helpful during revision that was never mentioned in class, something called "layers." It's a way of working through an edit of a long piece one thing at a time, i.e. layer by layer. An example would be a complete read through of the novel to verify that everything is in third person. Another read through for tense. A read through to determine whether Tim always speaks with the grammar of his local dialect? A reading with focus on the main character to see if he is developed sufficiently. Is the voice of each character consistent with his age, gender, geographic location and background? You can make your own list and focus on the weaknesses you know you have.

The final thing I didn't learn in school was to look at the person who just honestly critiqued my precious unborn piece of writing and say "Thank you."

Charles Markee is a Santa Rosa writer and film reviewer.

Christine Falcone

In school, it was all about topic sentences and margin alignment. It was all about the "MLA Handbook" and "Elements of Style." In school, I didn't learn how to cut and bleed on the page. No teacher ever explained that, as a writer, I'd be required to offer the tender white flesh of my wrists to the razor sharp process of writing.

I didn't learn how to cope with my muse's persistence. No one informed me that I would basically be on call, 24/7. No one gave a course on how to survive the sleepless nights and resulting exhaustion the next day. I didn't learn how to deal with all the voices in my head, the myriad of scenes and images floating past like so much furniture as Alice tumbled down the rabbit's hole, while simultaneously navigating my way through "reality". In school, I learned a lot about form, about structure. I learned about the classics, about schools of literary criticism. I was never taught how deeply, as a writer, I'd be required to live.

No one taught me in school how to handle the hurt and anger of friends and relatives who, after reading my work, were convinced I was describing them and their lives. There was no handbook on negotiating their judgments and indignation. I never learned how to convince them otherwise, how to explain that - although certain details and circumstances may be adapted from real life - my stories and characters are alive and separate from anyone or anything else.

I didn't learn how much was required of me, how much work and dedication was involved, or how great the reward of it all when I actually communicated in words some essential truth about being human. No lesson could have prepared me for the feeling of getting it right.

Searchlights columnist Christine Falcone's fiction, nonfiction and poetry have appeared in various print and online publications. Her work has also aired locally on public radio and nationally on public television. She recently completed her first novel entitled, "This Is What I Know."

Claudia Larson

I loved school, particularly the orange and green and yellow world maps that could be pulled down to reveal land outside the North Dakota prairies where my country school stood. It only now occurs to me that my education lacked map-drawing. Yes, map drawing: the kind of learning that builds a bridge between the ABCs, 123s, penmanship, science and one's own experience of life.

It wasn't a bad education, my country grade school days, small high school years, California college degree-getting. But even in college as a re-entry student fulfilling my music degree requirements, I yearned for more creativity, for more self expression, for more self-determinism beyond the structure of counterpoint and vocal exercises. Because I was an adult, I was finally able to say to a teacher, I don't agree with your style of teaching. I need something that allows more self discovery. I needed to translate the kinesthesia of my life's experience into words.

Claudia Larson lives and writes in Northern California.

Frances Jaekle

What writing lesson did I NOT learn at school? I didn't learn creative writing. By the time I reached third grade, and from then on, the focus was academic writing: explanations, documentations, verifiable information and/or reasoning.

Frances Jaekle continues her education out of school.

Jane Merryman

I learned plenty about writing from a photography seminar. The place was Point Reyes National Seashore, the presenter a well-known contributor to nature magazines. I had long admired his photo of sweet peppers of all colors completely filling the frame. He confirmed what I had suspected.

One, fabulous pictures can be taken with a Brownie. You don't need the best and the latest; in fact, these can get in your way, serve as a crutch, and encourage your creativity to coast.

Two, it is possible to take an interesting photo from any place you are standing. Even a door jamb can provide material for a remarkable composition.

The same holds true for writing. A sheet of paper and a pencil; you can't write any better with a computer--faster maybe, but not necessarily better. And from anywhere you are standing, there is a story. Find it.

Jane Merryman gardens, writes, and hikes from her base camp in Petaluma, California.

Ken Rodgers

The wan morning light warps around the dwarf mesquite trees that tattoo the flat hard land. I drive to an alfalfa field crammed full of lambing ewes. I pull a silver-painted water tank behind my pickup truck. The wheels under the tank bump and leap when they hit the potholes that litter the dusty road. The ewes will need water; their lambs will need milk; the ewes will need water to manufacture milk.

Out of my driver's side window I spot a coyote loping along, his back legs stiff. I wonder if his stiffness arises from an injury or the early morning chill. He is headed for my field of sheep. I stop and grab my rifle and set the cross-hairs of my scope on his thoracic cavity. I set my index finger against the cold blue metal of the trigger. But I can't shoot him.

This is the thing I have not been able to write about.

I watch the coyote lope off and I drive on. He disappears in a mesquite thicket and emerges out the other side where he stops and sits on his yellow haunches and watches me as I drive. He lifts his snout to the sky as if trying to gain my scent. I stop again, intent on killing him this time. I think he is stupid for stopping again. I am going to kill him. But still, I cannot pull the trigger.

These are the images I have not written.

As he lopes off again, I slam my hand on the dash board and dust flies around the cab. I have eliminated coyotes with shotguns, rifles and pistols. I have captured them in steel-teethed traps where they try to chew-off their caught legs so they can escape before I shoot them. I've captured them with snares hung from the bottom strands of barbwire where a ditch or draw cuts the land. I have found them dangling there, throats constricted by the wire—tighter and tighter as they yank and jerk, trying to escape. I have found them writhing in agony as the steady death of strychnine poison overpowers their legs. But I cannot shoot this coyote even as I know he is going to kill one of my sheep.

I cannot shoot him. I slam my hand on the dashboard again. And this is the thing I cannot write about. I have tried, many times. More times than I've seen the blue eyes of a coyote pup before I manage to put a .22 caliber bullet between them. I cannot write about this.

This is what I didn't learn in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at the big Jesuit university, how to write this.

Ken Rodgers is trying to write and teaches in Boise, ID. His latest short story, "Big Thunder," appears in the August 2006 issue of the on-line magazine, "Ascent Aspirations" at See more about Ken at

Mark Sloan

What's a writing lesson you didn't learn in school?

A better question: what writing lesson did I learn at at school?

I entered the science track in sixth grade, right after Sister Gertrude Delores told my parents, following my A+ report on something to do with frogs, that I was destined to become a famous scientist, though not necessarily in the field of frogs. In Sister's mind, writing, like art, was best left to girls and the more "emotional" boys.

From that point, school became a decade-long blur of chemistry classes, biology reports and science fairs. I once stuck pots of clover under three different colored lights and measured the rate of growth. My conclusion - that all the light in the world doesn't matter to plants if you forget to water them - didn't win any prizes.

Try though I might right now, I really don't remember any writing classes. I remember English literature - Sister Teesch finding Christ allegories in every major work of Western fiction (poor Billy Budd, hung from a cruciform yardarm) - and diagramming lots of sentences, but that's about it. There must have been something, though, because even the nuns didn't want their future scientists to be unlettered louts.

Now I watch my kids in high school, working on creative writing like it's, I don't know, photosynthesis or something, and I guess the lesson I didn't learn in school is this: if you're going to write, you're going to write, come hell, high water, or the Sisters of Providence.

Mark Sloan is a Santa Rosa pediatrician who can be reached at

Mimi Ghez

I wish a voice had whispered in my ear: Get up early, make yourself a cup of coffee, and sit down at your desk at the same time every day. Turn on your computer. Stare at it if you have to. Doodle if you feel inspired. But sit there, don't go anywhere, for an hour. Sit there when your mind is as blank as the screen. Stay there long enough to write a few words, even if they are distant cousins of your best work, twice removed. Write something, anything, even when you don't feel like writing, when your characters are on strike and your plot line is more like a trapezoid, when the urge to check your email account is as powerful as chocolate's siren lure. Sit there, stay there, once a day. When you live the life of a real writer, then you'll know what it is to create a work of art.

Mimi Ghez is a writer living in Washington, DC. She can be reached at Her previous work has been published in the "San Francisco Chronicle," "MediaFil" and by "Sage Publications," and she was named Illinois Poet Laureate junior by poet Gwendolyn Brooks. She doesn't always practice what she preaches.

Susan Bono

Like every California high school sophomore, I had to slog through "Julius Caesar." Quite a comedown from "Romeo and Juliet" the year before, but at least the pain was short-lived. After subjecting the students of Woodland High School to these two works by Shakespeare, our classical education was deemed complete. I never would have had any further trouble with the Bard if I hadn't become an English major. With the help of some knowledgeable professors and the footnotes in "The Riverside Shakespeare," I developed a healthy respect for the likes of King Lear and Othello.

I never did read "Henry V," though, which was just as well. It wasn't until I saw Kenneth Brannaugh's 1988 Academy Award-nominated film that I finally understood why this play has lasted more than four hundred years. On the page, the entire battle of Agincourt, which pits "threescore thousand" French against fewer than 20,000 English is summed up in two words of stage direction: "Alarums. Excursions." My imagination wasn't good enough to fill in that fearful blank. I needed a Technicolor tumult of clanging swords, mud-spattered men and snorting horses. It took the baby-faced genius of Brannaugh to drive home the utter hopelessness of Henry's situation, and provide me with one of my most powerful inspirations as a writer.

As Act 1V, Scene III opens, the English dukes are contemplating their fearful odds and wishing for a few of the well-rested gentlemen back home who are sleeping late on St. Crispin's Day. I know how they feel. I always begin the act of writing wishing I were fortified with better ideas, greater energy, extra guts and time. I often entertain the notion of saving myself some trouble and just surrendering to those pennants fluttering on that not-so-distant hill.

But I try to think like Henry—or Shakespeare's version of him. In the moments before the charge is sounded, he gazes lovingly into the faces of his filthy, exhausted men and tells them how lucky he feels to be here with them, how glad he is for the chance to do battle, because, "If we are marked to die, we are enow to do our country loss; and if to live, the fewer men, the greater share of honor." He says he doesn't want to share the glory with anyone else. With a few well-chosen words and his willingness to die, he whips his troops into such a frenzy they manage to win the day.

Is there any other way to meet the enemy of the blank page? Exhausted, doomed, but glad for the chance to give it a shot? Nothing I write is likely to have the staying power of Henry's St. Crispin's Day speech, but every time I put words to paper, I taste some of his victory.

Susan Bono counts herself among Henry’s “happy few” in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

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