Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

As a writer, what are your priorities? (06/15/12)

Featured writer: Dan Coshnear

Contributors this month:
Arlene Mandell
Becky Povich
Catherine Crawford
Claire Holcomb-Drapkin
Claudia Larson
Heather L. Seggel
Marilyn Petty
Pat LaPointe
Sara Baker
Susan Winter

Getting it Straight

by Dan Coshnear

"As a writer, what are your priorities?" - seems straight-forward. I can't in good conscience pretend now to be a gastroenterologist or some celeb's personal shopper. I can't carry on about my principles as a democrat or a dog-owner or husband or homo sapiens. When I am as a writer my first priority is writing, getting my fingers busy making words, corralling words into pictures of action, assembling those pictures in a sequence which is dramatic and meaningful and my own. Writing comes first. Without writing there is nothing to evaluate, to prioritize. That seems logical, almost inescapable -- if only it were true. As a human I am perpetually preoccupied and there is never ever a time I don't bring that humanness to the page/keyboard what-have-you. I know, you're thinking, Cut it out already! He's deliberately complicating the question. If he were a welder, and this an online magazine for welders, it wouldn't be so damn hard. He'd say my first priority is safety, like goggles or something. I know you're thinking that.

My first priority at this moment is to apologize to welders. I want to say writing is an activity unlike many other activities, only like itself, (though I'm sure my imagination is failing me here). Writing necessitates thinking and feeling, being open to what comes to the surface, and at times ignoring what comes to the surface to plumb deeper. So, dear welders, I don't mean you do what you do without thinking or feeling, only that maybe it's possible sometimes you're brazing or soldering a cruciform joint and also, at the same time, inventing a four-bean salad. As a writer I can't do that. It might even be dangerous.

As a writer, my first priority is choosing what to think about. Seems logical - if only it were true. This seems true: I don't know what comes first or where choice comes into the process. And this: I want to write something moving and thought-provoking and about which no one is inclined to say, what a waste of my time reading that. And, I hope what I write helps a reader be more rather than less attentive to what's important in her/his life, provided that the things which are important are like worthwhile, like what I would call worthwhile, like fairness and love and sympathy rather than say profit or status or even improved gas mileage, though I'm open to discussion on the last example. Otherwise there are a million other micro-considerations in a high state of flux that only move faster when you look at them.

An old friend of mine used to say, "Dan, priorities have to come first." I'm sorry, Ethel, I can't agree.

Daniel Coshnear is author of Jobs & Other Preoccupations (Helicon Nine 2001). He teaches fiction writing at UC Berkeley Extension and runs writing workshops in the north bay.

It's a Plan

  by Arlene Mandell

No use complaining about my busy life/your busy life. It's a given. Even when not working on my dubious version of the Great American Novel, I try to do one of the following activities every day:

1. Revise a poem - even if the revision consists of taking out one word.
2. Reread the submission requirements for a publication and note the deadline. Then set my deadline a month ahead because the publication will most likely be overrun with submissions.
3. Check on my reserve account at the library. Has a book arrived that will spark an idea, or cause extreme envy?
4. Examine an essay that isn't stellar. Decide to recycle the paper it's written on.
5. Make a brief entry in my journal.

I have many more "writerly" activities, such as dusting the bookshelves, which often leads to putting aside the duster and reading a snippet of War and Peace or a poem by Carolyn Kizer. Or I might wander into the garden to muse on the creature who is eating my beautiful new Charisma rose. There's a poem in there somewhere.

Arlene L. Mandell will lead two workshops this summer at the Petaluma Community Center: a Jumpstart workshop on July 10 and Abracadabra: How to turn to freewrites, journals and snippets of memoir into publishable work on Aug. 16. For more information, go to

In Any Order

  by Becky Povich

Once again Susan has baffled, befuddled, and bewildered me. For quite some time, I've read the above question over and over and over. It's a question I've never thought to ask myself.

Ten years ago, I discovered I was a writer. It was the birth of something so unexpected, so exhilarating I didn't ask questions, I just went with it. Having never taken a writing course, I was naive about all things "writerly." I had no idea about the proper steps to take regarding sending query letters and to whom. (What's a query letter? What are clips?) Throughout these ten years, though, I've learned so much, and I owe most of it to other writers, because of reading their books and/or being friends and acquaintances with them.

And so, after much thought, below are some of my priorities, in no particular order:

Be involved in wonderful writers' groups that are good for me.
Be passionate about my writing.
Believe in myself. (If I don't, who will?)
Take chances.
Don't hang out with negative people, of any profession.
Read. Read. Read.
Write. Write. Write.
Edit. Edit. Edit.
Submit. Submit. Submit.
Never stop learning.
Never give up.

Becky Povich is not as befuddled as she thinks as she writes with heart near St. Louis, Missouri.

Front Burner, Back Burner

  by Catherine Crawford

Here I am again, bent over my desk and buried in paper, feeling like a climber at the foot of Mt. Everest. What to do first—it's the old dilemma. I used to let timecards and flow charts decide. But after a while, they weren't much help. I let them go and have never been sorry.

A friend I had once cooked the best black beans I ever ate. She dumped them in a pot and tossed in a ham hock. When the water boiled, she moved them from the front to the back burner of the stove. On a low flame, they simmered for hours, almost forgotten. When dinner rolled around, they were tender and smoky. This woman was also a prolific writer.

If money's at stake—my own or someone else's—I conscientiously write to deadlines. But if I have time to wiggle around, I use the bean-pot approach. I start with something simple on my desk, anything I love. Work on it for a while. Lay it down. Go to something else. After I stop, the words keep bubbling on a back burner in my head.

I do the same thing with each piece of writing until I've got lots of pots bubbling away. Work done like this often sorts itself out with no need for interference. I don't number my pots. I don't turn up the fire because real fire burns inside a story. Each project comes forward when my thoughts are complete. Then I can re-write. But often, a story just needs a good stir, and it's done.

When she isn’t writing, Catherine enjoys making bean dip and roasting soybeans in Vancouver, Washington. Her

Priorities in Writing

  by Claire Holcomb-Drapkin

The nasty little alter ego, who plagues me, smirked when I tried to list my writing priorities. "Oh, you don't know," she sneered. "You just go on, as always, not thinking, just scribbling and more scribbling." She popped open a beer. Tired of her disrespect, I knocked the beer out of her hand." I do know them, here they are," I argued. She peered over my shoulder, eyes narrowed.

I must write regularly. Ignore all ideas that it's too late for me.

"But," cries bitchy Claire, "You're 72. You've been scribbling for years. Why do you think you can do anything different now"?

Bitchy Claire needs to stand in the corner and contemplate her sins.

I must work regularly on the two pieces I hope to get out this summer. I must not spend too much time gabbing on e-mail. Also, I must not be too harsh on myself. I'm a scattered person, always managing, by a hair's breath, to meet a deadline or avoid bouncing a check. But, I'm stuck with me, I may try to improve me. OK. But I also need to put my arms around the present me and say, "Hey, honey, you're pretty okay just the way you are."

Bitchy Claire rolls her eyes.

I must continue taking writing classes: to meet colleagues and give myself structure. I must learn how to better use critiques. Take what resonates with me, and deep-six the rest. I must not let myself forget that I have been published, have been paid for my fiction and non-fiction.

Even Bitchy Claire sits up and says, "Yep, really true. Amazing, but true."

I must stop minimizing that I successfully worked for seven years as a writer for a national trade newspaper. That counts. I started and published a feminist magazine that died, but had a good run. That counts too. I am thoroughly sick and tired of dismissing myself.

Bitchy Claire raises her hand and snaps, "You have to critique yourself. You have to admit your shortcomings. And if you just aren't good enough, well so be it." The audience boos. Bitchy Claire tosses them a confused look and exits left.

Again, I will keep working on the two stories I will send out this summer. I will
stay in touch with "Tiny Lights" and any other equally supportive venue. I will
continue work on my memoir outline. And, I'll not get overwhelmed by the idea of writing a book.

This woman, who is me at 72, laughs. "I think I might be able to (expletive) do it.
God knows. I can try."

Bitchy Claire sits across the table. I try to take the girl's hand. She pulls back. Bitchy Claire had orders from Dad back when. Odds are she will keep repeating his injunctions. I'm not listening.

Claire is, awkwardly but surely, coming into her own. She paints toenails blue, refuses to
make nice with not nice people, and tolerates clutter in spades. She also always has to look up how to use quotes with questions marks. She lives in Germantown, Maryland.

It’s Good for Me

  by Claudia Larson

Priorities. "Ugh," I think. Listing priorities is just one more thing to do, which is as appealing as sorting and filing papers.

A good night's sleep later, I write, simply because I've had a good night's sleep. Writing seems something fun and interesting to do.

A new thought emerges. Perhaps writing priorities are less about ensuring a clean and quiet workspace and more about having more salad and less Mimi's ice cream. Maybe it isn't about gluing myself to pen and paper but more about taking a walk in the owl-filled night and egret-painted day. Is it possible that my priorities are less about writing and more about being outdoors, consuming good food, spending time with family and friends? And yet when all those things fuel me, I'm more likely to write.

The mourning doves lure Claudia Larson into her garden in Sebastopol, CA.

The Thing Before First Thing's First

  by Heather L. Seggel

This morning I woke up with a list of four short pieces, including this one, on my very modest to-do list. As a rule I'm eager to start whenever there's work to be done. Being blocked or procrastinating rarely intrude on my desire to jump in. But I dawdled over breakfast, then went to water the plants and suddenly noticed the anarchic overgrowth on several rosebushes and felt it would be uncouth to not stop everything and attack them for several hours despite still being in my pajamas. Roses led to potato vines, with a side trip to shape a giant lilac and pull an enormous tangle of dead California poppies, which caused a planter to move a few inches, unleashing an Olympic sprint among fifty or so earwigs for shelter. I didn't get an accurate count, having run screaming in the opposite direction. Thus traumatized, it seemed like a good time to dress and get to work.

The minute my teeth were brushed a half dozen groceries began calling my name in seductive, delicious harmony. Well, OK, a walk to the store is healthy and a salad's not a salad without tomatoes. But then there's work to be done, right?

After returning home, unpacking, reading the paper, checking in with the radio, walking to and from the public library, making coffee and spending half an hour flat on my back under a flax-filled eye pillow, I wandered to the office, grabbed my word processor, and got everything on my list done in a manner that feels as close to effortless as it gets.

It's fair to say my first priority is to do the work as well as I can at all times, but the thing that ensures that is being able to catch the wave when it comes through and ride it as gracefully as I can.

Receptivity, maybe. And it's the thing that comes before first, whatever that is.

Heather Seggel lives and works in Ukiah, CA, though her to-do list indicates a continuing search for new digs.

One of these days

  by Marilyn Petty

I don't have any priority when it comes to writing - or for a lot of other things, as a matter of fact. I pay bills on time so as not to be delinquent. I arrive at appointments on time so as not to incur the wrath of the person waiting for me. Dusting or writing have — or should have — priorities. Dusting should be done, so does writing if I'm going to call myself a writer, which I'd better. Otherwise, why am I sitting here trying to hash this out?

Libraries and book stores abound with How-To's in writing. The authors set lots of priorities, e.g. Do it at the same time every day; Don't sit at a window where you can look out and get distracted; Sharpen pencils (or some other innocuous routine) if that gets the muse going; Put something on paper even if it is nonsense; For heavens sake, just do it! From the number of How-To Be A Writer books on my own shelves my priorities seem to be more reading about than writing.

Keep a journal is good advice. One author suggests picking one incident in a day and writing it up as a brief vignette with color, dialogue, a beginning, middle and end. Sounds like good advice. One of these days, when I catch up on my daily diary I'll dash off a pretty little paragraph as the author advised and then I'll be a writer who knows how to prioritize.

Marilyn Petty takes care of dusting in her Santa Rosa home when she gets around to it.

Learning the Trick

  by Pat LaPointe

What Are Your Priorities?

When I first saw this I wondered if it was a trick question. I write, I publish, so I guess I'm a writer. But priorities? That another issue all together.

I was a writer long before I realized it. During that "before" time I was also a wife, mother, daughter, care giver, and worked in a profession. In each of these roles I had definite priorities: Run an efficient household, be sure the kids get all that I thought they needed, and care for the needs of aging parents, be an effective and efficient employee.

Well now I'm still a wife. But the children are grown. The grandchildren have arrived and my parents are gone. So it might be a good time to re-examine the original question.

My priorities have a lot to do with timing. To be really honest, they have more to do with time management. Do I really need to get groceries now, just as I'm finding the right words for that next paragraph? It would be great to spend time with the grandkids, but I just did that two days ago. There's that sink full of dishes. Shouldn't they be loaded into the dishwasher?

But back to the issue of priorities. It's pretty clear that my basic priority as a writer should be to continue to work toward making writing a priority as much as possible; certainly more so than it is on many days. And after that, the priorities that are established will be quite like those I established in all the other roles I've played: Organize my writing and my writing "life" to run in an efficient manner; give the process everything I think it needs; care for and nurture the both the writing and the writer and give this career the concentration and dedication it deserves.

Pat LaPointe, Prospect Heights, IL is the editor of the Changes In Life monthly newsletter for women: She is also the current President of the Story Circle Network and has recently published an anthology: "The Woman I've Become: 37 Women Share Their Journeys From Toxic Relationships to Self Empowerment."

The Juggler

  by Sara Baker

Some mornings when I wake up I feel as if I'm juggling several glass balls—my family, my friends, my day job, my writing, my health, my integrity, temporary distractions, and those occasional, unexpected emergencies. How, as a writer, do I maintain a decent flow of productivity while juggling all the various aspects of my life?

I fully recognize that I can neither do all things at once nor do all things equally well. Essentially, I can only keep so many balls in the air before one of them suffers from lack of attention. So, I have to honestly ask myself: How many things do I try to juggle at once as a writer? Is my writing suffering because of some of them? Do I need to scale back or even eliminate some of them in order to keep writing in the forefront of my mind? How do I decide? These are tough questions that most writers wrestle with from time to time.

Although I don't have control over the circumstances of my life, I do have control over the meaning of my life, particularly my attitude—my priorities if you will.

So, I first made small adjustments in my lifestyle that foster my writing by:
• Passing up social events;
• Waking up a little earlier to write;
• Working out a little less;
• Developing flexibility by taking advantage of little windows of time to write (i.e., while waiting for meetings, doctor appointments, etc.); and
• Using some of my vacation time to write.

Next, I adjusted my thinking and priorities about writing by:
• Writing daily;
• Seeking feedback on my writing;
• Identifying the weaknesses in my writing;
• Submitting regularly;
• Accepting rejection as a step forward;
• Repeating the process until somebody likes my words and publishes them; and
• Relishing even the small victories.

My priorities are beginning to take a turn as writing slowly works its way up my priority list. So, a new journey begins. Now that writing has become more central to my life, I am less likely to use either my time or my words carelessly, for I realize that neither can be retrieved.

Sara Baker’s learning to juggle her part-time job, her family, and her writing. Aside from writing, her favorite past time is spending time with her soul mate, Bill, with whom she’s been married for 29 years.

Keeping it Real

  by Susan Winter

The stories that have resonated with me as a reader contained characters I could identify with whether they were pioneer women or space aliens. One of the most powerful things of great stories is discovering a kindred spirit in a character from a different culture or even another time. Cardboard characters can turn an interesting story into a dreary bus ride. As a former commuter to San Francisco, I know a lot about long bus rides.

One of my main priorities as a writer is to keep my characters realistic so my readers will accompany them on the journey. If readers don't see themselves in my characters, maybe they recognize someone they once knew or at least would like to know better.

Susan Winters works, writes and dances salsa in Reno, Nevada. Her music reviews and articles have appeared in the Reno News and Review. Her novella, Mixed Blessings is now available at Amazon. Her blog celebrates balancing creative pursuits with a full-time job.

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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