Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

How do you grow as a writer? (01/15/12)

Featured writer: Clarice Stasz

Contributors this month:
Ana Manwaring
Becky Povich
Catherine Crawford
Clarice Stasz
Claudia Larson
David S. Johnson
Elaine Webster
Sara Baker
Susan Bono

How do you grow as a writer?

by Clarice Stasz

Never set limits
Not a poet, me never!
Now I write haikus

Search for new teachers
The one online a friend tried?
Romanticism, me?

Read classics always
Austen, Rich, Dickinson, Bly
Copy into journal

Write often bad stuff
Bore yourself with tedium
Here, epiphany!

Clarice Stasz has written several multi-generational biographies of women, most recently Jack London's Women.

Not This, But This

  by Ana Manwaring

Sometimes I think I must be ADHD — I just can't seem to settle into a groove. Sameness bores me, even when it comes to writing. I want to write novels. I've learned novel writing skills, but now I want to write personal essays. Or poetry. Travel articles. It appears to me that as soon as I learn a skill, I'm on to the next—long before I've truly mastered it. And there's no end in sight. I ask myself, how will I ever be great at anything if I flit on and on and on and….

I love information. I'm alive at the right time. I'm hungry to learn, to grow, to learn more. I just can't focus on a course of study. It was my big problem when I wrote my thesis. I kept discovering new related threads; I didn't investigate the literature on one or two topics, I followed six. My thesis chair finally said, "Choose!"

But my "problem" is what keeps me going and growing as a writer. I'll never run out of avenues of study or topics to write about. I pick topics—lately the correlation between characters and place, or how characters build suspense in novels, or the use and creation of symbols in fiction, or—just anything! I read, take notes, study, teach someone else and apply my newfound knowledge to my current writing project. I practice. And just short of mastery, some seductive new genre, or point of craft, or style turns my head and off I buzz to the next honeyed flower.

Oh look! Are those parentheses? I think I'll learn when and how to use them.
How do I make a metaphor for a life lived in doubt?
What is steampunk?

How do I grow as a writer? I suppose growth comes through investigation, thought and practice. If I settled down, I'd say: interest, study practice, and perseverance. But right now I'm off to learn about the connection between personal journaling and fictional character development.

Ana Manwaring is a writer, freelance editor and columnist expanding her horizons in Penngrove, CA.

This and That

  by Becky Povich

I think many people would answer that taking writing courses, whether it was in college, or other classes, definitely helped them grow as writers. And maybe they're still in college now. Unfortunately, I never attended either. But, I have grown by:

Being part of a marvelous critique group that meets every week. Even when I don't have anything to read, I learn so much by listening to the comments and suggestions of others. And just last week I joined a new critique group, consisting of four women. I just know it's going to be great.

Being a member of a few writers' groups, one of which I was the president in 2011.

Attending various writer conferences.

Submitting to anthologies and contests, getting published, and even by rejections.

Reading, reading, reading.

Journaling every morning and free writing (with amazing results!)

Reading and doing the exercises in Bird by Bird, and Old Friend from Far Away.

Blogging and the friendship of fellow writers.

Writing, writing, writing. Submitting answers to these unanswerable questions in Tiny Lights has, without a doubt, made me grow an inch or two. (Being 4' 11", I can use all the growing I can get!)

Thank you, Susan Bono, for encouraging and inspiring me to keep writing!

Becky Povich lives near St. Louis, Missouri and hopes to one day travel all over the world. If you'd like to read her blog: or e-mail:

In Open Air

  by Catherine Crawford

I'm someone who has no luck growing plants indoors. I follow directions on pots I buy to no avail. My thumbs are both black, or entirely missing, when I garden inside. I've even killed a Sansevieria, or Mother-in-law's Tongue, a fierce looking thing with blade shaped leaves that needs little water and likes low light.

On my desk this morning is writing I can't seem to move along. Maybe I should say it moves along, but it doesn't go anywhere interesting. This week we've had freezing fog in Vancouver. The roads are like glass filmed with oil. I don't drive much and overeat. The lines in my head are from the witches' chant in Act IV of Macbeth.

But cabin fever is only the rash on my problem. Indoors I lose (and I hate this word) my artistic vision. My power chord's plug falls out of its socket. My compass can't find its true north. Each time I re-read what I've written, I feel like I'm halfway into a jacket and can't find the other sleeve.

My growth as a writer is a process that starts when I get outside. Wilderness is great but not crucial. Any outdoors will do. Gum wrappers in mud or crows on a road kill give me details—the root of metaphor. One time, I found a mouse skull in a puddle and wrote for days about that. I soak up minutia out in the elements where it's easy to poke around. The wind in my teeth is a catalyst for growth. My pen never lets me forget that.

Catherine confesses she’s not always as rugged as she likes to sound. The day she wrote this, she went to Target and bought an electric blanket.

How do you grow as a writer?

  by Clarice Stasz

Never set limits
Not a poet, me never!
Now I write haikus

Search for new teachers
The one online a friend tried?
Romanticism, me?

Read classics always
Austen, Rich, Dickinson, Bly
Copy into journal

Write often bad stuff
Bore yourself with tedium
Here, epiphany!

Clarice Stasz has written several multi-generational biographies of women, most recently Jack London’s Women.


  by Claudia Larson

The rising sun was warming a corner of the sky this morning as I headed to the barn. Since all the sun's energy was being used to lift itself out of bed, I relied on the car's heater to warm my toes as I drove to work. The color of the sun sat in my chest, thawing thoughts and images stored there, preserved and waiting for a moment of quiet before forming tiny leaves, then delicate roots. Images grow in those quiet moments. Their tender tendrils climb bone and blood, muscle and breath. Their roots sink toes into compost, searching for nutrients, for moisture, for an anchor. I never know what fruit or vegetable, nut or seed will result from this searching, from this growing. I only know that the sun rises every day.

Claudia Larson likes to wear warm, wool socks on frosty Sebastopol CA mornings.

Writing it down

  by David S. Johnson

9:37 P.M.

I'm standing on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau looking across the valley. There's a dark plaque of clouds and there is no moon and there are no stars. It looks as if the sky shook loose its jewels to form a constellation of cities and farm houses in the valley below.

This is the kind of sentence Mama would want me to write down.

I've been telling stories probably since I started yammering. Most of the stories are funny. Maybe not to you, but to me. Like when my sister was dangling upside down from a barbed wire fence by her dress kicking and screaming like a rabbit caught in a snare after Mama tried to put her over the fence. Retelling these stories brings Mama to splendid laughter and her usual advice, "You should write that down." Those stories are easy to write down.

My past four months have been difficult. A mother-figure with stage 4 cancer. A break up with a long time girlfriend. An unsettling truth about my father. These meteors crashed through the ceiling of my life. I have moved from New England to Tennessee; these rocks from above now heavy on my back.

Yesterday I was driving back to my apartment feeling very alone and very uncertain. The past four months sat on my heart. I said, "I need to write all this down." I replied, "I am too sad. Writing it down makes it real." I shifted the rocks on my back, but I didn't write it down.

I don't know if I grow as a writer. I don't know if I can. I do know that I write and I do know that I can't grow if I don't write it down.

David Johnson is writing it down in Tennessee.

Writers Helping Writers

  by Elaine Webster

I stumbled upon a Redwood Writers' membership meeting as a refugee from writer's block. From the back row of folding chairs, I spied on the congregation and I wondered if these people could pull me out of my rut. That morning I had fervently spun my wheels. Dirt flew in every direction as I dug in deeper. Seventeen chapters into a memoir and I had come to a complete standstill. What was the point? Where was I going? Where had I been—-really?

The president opened the meeting.

"Okay . . . okay. Let's get started our guest speaker today is "Patricia Davis" and she'll ask us: "So how is your book doing?"

Yikes! I thought. How many ways can I say shitty?

Two hours later, I slipped out a side door on to the street. Wintry chills hit hard. I pulled on my gloves and walked. Keep moving. Don't stop. There's a way. Patricia brought hope to the podium. She had found a way to proceed, to succeed, to be heard and to inspire. Am I capable? I shivered and scurried to the warmth and sanctuary of my car. Better jump in. You have no choice. You must do something. You can't give up. Not with only four chapters to go.
* * * *
I dabbled for months. Bored, restless—seeking inspiration. I showed up one afternoon at the SoCo Café. The building has history—an early design of a prestigious local architect. Yet, over the years, it lost appeal. Transformed from a classic sleek wood design to tawdry beige. Is this my writing destiny? Like this building?—going from deep hues of natural wood to cracked, discolored, boring?

I had met Sandy Baker months earlier at the Redwood Writers' Christmas salon. I wasn't certain she remembered me.

"Hi, I'm Elaine. We met a while back and I want to see if I can help with the writer's conference."

"Oh sure . . . I remember. I'm going to chair the committee. This is our first meeting. Here, let me scoot over."

We had a few minutes to chat before the other volunteers arrived. I smiled weakly, not sure of myself or exactly what I could do. I made an attempt to explain my motivation.

"I went to the last conference and learned so much. I'd like to contribute in some way. The only problem is that I have a full time job, so I'm not sure how much time I'll have."

Sandy looked dubious. "Well, what do you do for a living?" she asked.

"I'm an accountant."

"Bingo!" she exclaimed. "Just what we need. You can be the registrar/treasurer."

And so it went. And guess what? The volunteer opportunity brought with it a renewal of spirit. A tow truck filled with writers hooked a grapple to my axle and pulled me out of the ditch. I've sketched out my last chapters—Chapter Eighteen starts today. Expect to see "Balanced on the Edge of the Crowd" in print soon. Then it's on to the screenplay.

Elaine Webster sits on the Board of Directors of Redwood Writers, a chapter of California Writers Club. Redwood Writers
She has published two non-fiction books:
Jesse's Tale,about greyhound adoption and Heartfelt, a medical caregiver’s guide. Her poetry has appeared in Vintage Voices: The Sound of A Thousand Leaves and she’s a regular contributor to Tiny Lights.

Intentional Growth

  by Sara Baker

Living things grow—that's an undeniable fact. Growth is often for the best because it leads to change. Change leads to improvement. Ultimately, if I'm not improving as a writer, I'm dying as a writer. So, how do I accept new challenges, explore new terrain, and grow as a writer? Here are some thoughts:

Grasp my unique style and voice and enjoy their expression.

Read extensively and frequently. I either read about the writing craft or read in a new genre that I've never read before; when I read fiction, I immerse myself in the author's methodology and analyze how he does things; in the process, I become a better writer.

Observe myself and others impartially. Observation enlarges my scope, keeps me fresh, and feeds my inspiration. Without observation, I can't grow.

Write often. The best way for me to grow as a writer is simply by writing—there is no other way. By writing consistently, I've learned two important lessons. First, when I lose myself in a story, I learn who I am. It's as if the mere act of writing brings me to the point of discovering something I didn't know until I actually wrote it. Second, just as a pianist must play the piano in order to refine his playing, so I must write in order to polish my writing.

Take a chance and try something different. In order to grow as a writer, I must be willing to risk. Simply, I've got to be open, brave, and curious. I need to imagine new choices and question the way things are. Maybe I should write in a new form or style? Maybe I need to write about a topic I've never thought about before?

Hang out with other writers. I share my work and ideas with others and get feedback; doing so, keeps me inspired. The tender critiques of others help me improve my writing. Connecting with others also keeps me from feeling so isolated. There are many ways I connect: blogs, writing groups, writers' exchanges, book clubs, etc. Ultimately, I'd like to find a mentor who can offer me wisdom, perspective, and advice.

Sara Baker is a contented retiree who works part-time as an editor/proofreader and freelance writer. She enjoys spending time with her soul mate, Bill, with whom she has been married for 28 years.

Seed Saver

  by Susan Bono

I've been growing like gangbusters over the last fifteen years, founding a magazine, expanding my teaching and editing practice, and yes, even doing some writing. I shouldn't forget my website and social networking efforts either, all of which expand my reach. I've definitely gotten bigger, but is size the measure of my growth as a writer?

Learning to be a writer is like trying to grow a giant pumpkin. You water it, tend it, protect its ever-increasing hugeness until the day of the fair arrives. Cart your prodigy to the judging area, take a million pictures during the awards presentation, and then what? Is a giant pumpkin even edible? What can you do with it besides save a few seeds for next year?

As a writer, I often make the mistake of gauging my growth by the size of the pumpkins I produce, but really, what's important are those seeds, small and unassuming as they are. Each of my stories has its growing season and harvest, and some of the fruits of my labor might win prizes, but without the next generation to sow, there won't be another crop.

It's been a while since I've done any serious planting. My garden is due for some tending. Thank goodness, I've got a few seeds tucked in my pocket waiting for me to start growing again.

Susan Bono is counting chickens and saving seeds in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


C. Larson, B. Povich, M. Petty, C. Crawford, T. Sanders

Columnists Emeriti: Christine Falcone, David S. Johnson, Betty Rodgers, Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Betty Winslow

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer living in Petaluma, CA. She has published Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at She conducts creative writing classes in Petaluma and Santa Rosa and co-hosts the quarterly Speakeasy Literary Saloon at the Aqus Café in Petaluma. She's on the boards of Petaluma Readers Theatre and the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is still writing a postcard a day. Her most recent publishing credits include Petaluma Readers Theatre, KRCB’s Mouthful, Milk and Ink, and Passager Magazine.

Marilyn Petty is a dyed-in-the wool Midwesterner, a long-ago émigré to California and a fortunate resident of Sonoma County, CA. She taught weaving through the SRJC for 8 years and was the reporter, essayist, editor and publisher of the Redwood Empire Handweavers and Spinners Guild for 10 years. When not tangling with yarns, she is unknotting words, writing poetry and personal essays. She putters in the garden when words fail her.

Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, published two award winning chapbooks of poetry, and written articles for, a Portland, Oregon online travel magazine. She works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington. Her email:

Claudia Larson, in her childhood, wrote long letters to her best-friend cousin and enthralled herself by writing a heart-rending story of two orphans. She writes fewer letters nowadays and prefers writing poetry and memoirs of her North Dakotan farm girl days. She is not yet an orphan, has six siblings and lives in Sebastopol, CA.

Becky Povich lives near St. Louis, Missouri. Although not young in "people years," she's only been writing for ten of those. Getting her first book completed, a memoir, is her current short-term goal. She can be reached at, or visit her blog at

Theresa Sanders lives in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, where she is completing a novel. A former award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a Documentation and Training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. Her stories appear regularly in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Theresa welcomes email and would love to hear from you. Contact her at:

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