Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

Where do you like to write? (01/14/13)

Featured writer: Arlene Mandell

Contributors this month:
Laura Matheson
Arlene Mandell
Claudia Larson
Don Edgers
Ellen Keim
Janet Caplan
Pat LaPointe
Sara Etgen-Baker
Susan Bono
Theresa Sanders

Getting it Out

by Arlene Mandell

I've got three main locations for writing. The first is probably the least productive-I write in my head. I have written entire novels this way. The protagonist is always a Superwoman with many virtues and a few near fatal flaws. Fortunately for the literary world, at some point she overcomes all obstacles and is no longer worth writing about.

The second location is on paper-the backs of supermarket receipts, margins of other writing and journals. Many journals. Different sizes. Lined and unlined. BUT I've never mastered the art of orderly journal-keeping. So today's journal entry might follow one from last March: "Put masks of faces on/in trees."

Most often, I'm here at this keyboard in my home office. It's 5:23 a.m. Ringo the Havanoodle is asleep on the couch. A set of purple hand weights rests beside a foot-high stack of books, folders and the California Driver Handbook. Yes, I'm so old I must retake the exam. The hand weights remind me of the need to do physical as well as mental lifting. The Handbook declares: "You must drive slower when there is heavy traffic or bad weather." Wonder if that will be on the test.

Arlene Mandell now has a raven hand puppet that shrieks "Nevermore" when she slacks off.

It's All Good

  by Laura Matheson

There's a distinct difference, in my life, between where I would like to write and where I actually write. At the moment, I write wherever and whenever I can. Between commuting, teaching, running my boys to their various activities, and trying to keep the house in some semblance of order, there isn't a lot of time for writing. So that means taking opportunities when they arise, writing whenever, wherever, and sometimes even however I can.

I've taken to carrying what I jokingly call my "writer's purse," a behemoth of a thing that not only has room for the essentials (wallet, medications, keys), but also room for my writing essentials: iPad, journal, pad of paper, two pens, Post-It Notes in various sizes, and whatever book I happen to be in the midst of reading. It seems a bit bizarre, at times, lugging so much around with me. But there's nothing quite like realizing I have 15 quiet minutes before hockey practice starts, 15 minutes during which I can scribble to my heart's content.

I've taken to my wherever, whenever approach for one reason: I wasn't writing. Not one bit. Yet I still thought of myself as a writer—go figure. There was never enough time, and the conditions were never right. I had this ideal in my head, the perfect room, the perfect desk, the perfect pen and paper, the still, perfect quietness. Let's face it: I'm a mom to two small boys, I teach half-time, and I run two small businesses. I always had an excuse, albeit usually a very valid one: laundry, piano practice, hockey practice, Tae Kwon Do. But I still found time to surf the Internet aimlessly, jealous of those who actually found the time to write.

Things changed this past summer, when I made time to write every day. I wrote at the golf course coffee shop while the boys were in golf camp, at my parents' kitchen table while the boys played Lego, at the kitchen counter at our lake house while the boys built elaborate train tracks, on the beach at the lake while the boys swam, and at the table on the deck at the lake, after the boys had gone to bed, where I wrote until the moon rose and I could no longer see my words on the page. I never wrote for long, but I amassed quite a body of work over a rather short period of time.

Suffice to say that now, my ideal writing place is not forgotten, but it's been shoved to the back of a high shelf in my mental closet. Some day, maybe, I'll take out that ideal and dust it off, but for now, it's enough that I write, wherever and whenever I can. People might think me a bit odd, but so long as I'm writing, that's fine by me.

Laura Matheson is just another mom, two little ones in tow, pencil at the ready, and camera in hand. Originally from the Canadian west coast, she now lives in rural Saskatchewan with her boys, husband, and their two crazy English Springer Spaniels, where she teaches Communications and Technical Writing at SIAST. Visit her

Getting it Out

  by Arlene Mandell

I've got three main locations for writing. The first is probably the least productive-I write in my head. I have written entire novels this way. The protagonist is always a Superwoman with many virtues and a few near fatal flaws. Fortunately for the literary world, at some point she overcomes all obstacles and is no longer worth writing about.

The second location is on paper-the backs of supermarket receipts, margins of other writing and journals. Many journals. Different sizes. Lined and unlined. BUT I've never mastered the art of orderly journal-keeping. So today's journal entry might follow one from last March: "Put masks of faces on/in trees."

Most often, I'm here at this keyboard in my home office. It's 5:23 a.m. Ringo the Havanoodle is asleep on the couch. A set of purple hand weights rests beside a foot-high stack of books, folders and the California Driver Handbook. Yes, I'm so old I must retake the exam. The hand weights remind me of the need to do physical as well as mental lifting. The Handbook declares: "You must drive slower when there is heavy traffic or bad weather." Wonder if that will be on the test.

Arlene Mandell now has a raven hand puppet that shrieks "Nevermore" when she slacks off.

Writing Inside

  by Claudia Larson

Some shapeless, inexplicable urge rises, a massive wave fed by something deeply primeval. It surges through blood and bones, liver and heart, brain and throat, gathering power and strength, knowing with a mindless awareness that finally finds fingertips, arcing like a hot-wired car, jumpstarting into expression. That is where I like to write.

The external where is not as important and can be found clothed in a ratty but soft bathrobe cozied in flannel sheets or seated on a deck overlooking spring pastures and hills that grab at clouds and blue sky. Sometimes the external flattens against a computer screen, letters following each other ant-like. And other times words drape themselves over lined paper pages, pausing for moments while other words wait in the wings. Sometimes the arc stalls, falls into thin air. Then the waiting begins. And ends once the surge rises again, arcing to the surface.

Claudia Larson lives in Sebastopol, California. She doesn’t know how to hot-wire cars.

Wherever the Urge Strikes

  by Don Edgers

Most of my writing takes place at home in front of a computer; however, I am beginning this essay as I sit at a table in a coffee shop. It dawns on me that wherever I find a table and have a beverage to drink, the urge to write almost overwhelms me. I manage to control myself at mealtime.
I wrote the following portion of a chapter in An Island In Time: Growing up in the 1940s while cruising in the Red Sea:

Cora Encounters of the Fox Island Kind - 1946

At an early age I had learned "Thou shalt not to steal." One matronly woman, I'll call Cora, evidently never learned this. She made a daily pilgrimage to the store which she entered reasonably slim, and from which she emerged surprisingly plump. The store's proprietor explained to me that, "She gets a bill for everything she hides under her coat or tucks into her shopping basket."
This eccentric-looking shoplifter's daily getup never changed, no matter the season, leaving me to guess what her 1920s-style hat covered. Nobody could tell me if she was bald or not. Like the Mona Lisa painting, Cora lacked eyebrows. No clue there for hair color. Her heavy black coat nearly reached the ground. I often have envisioned its inside lined with secret pockets brimming with pilfered goods, perhaps organized like the grocer's shelves. Someone theorized that she wore no clothes under the coat, so every time I saw her my eyes looked for the telltale sign of a dress.
Cora's three-word vocabulary: "Lo," "yes," and "no.'" If I was in the store when she made that daily trek, I'd hang around as long as possible to see if I could spot her tuck away loot, listen as she ran through her vocabulary, and look for that trace of a dress or hair.
Picking a can from one of the shelves, she'd read the label with great interest, then look around and either put it in her basket or return it to the shelf. If I were in the store when she actually shopped, I patiently would watch to see if I could catch her stealing. I never did. Occasionally when I'd be in the store for a Popsicle, Cora would emerge from the frozen food lockers. At the end of her hour-long shopping spree, the lockers would be her last stop before placing her basket on the counter by the cash register.
Cora had accidentally been locked in the freezer when she had gone there to get something. The proprietor unknowingly had closed the heavy, foot-thick, tight fitting door all the way. After shutting Cora in the icy tomb, the proprietor resumed unloading supplies from his truck. When another customer finally entered the locker, he discovered Cora huddled by the door. Fortunately she was just a little cold as she had her winter coat on. No doubt she had enough groceries in her basket and under that coat to get her through a couple more days in there. Her accidental rescuer said that when the door was opened Cora said, "Lo." and hastily exited. The proprietor could only surmise that Cora might have added the word "help" to her vocabulary that day.

Don writes in Port Orchard, Bremerton or Silverdale, WA. His website:

In Position

  by Ellen Keim

Writing in a coffee house or café sounds so … I don't know, artistic. I wish I could write anywhere, under any conditions, but that's not me. I'm too easily distracted, for one thing; I'd spend more time watching people (and eavesdropping) than I would writing. I need peace and quiet and no interruptions. And since my children are grown and gone, and my husband works during the day, I need look no further than my home to find the privacy I need.

I live in a hundred-year-old bungalow on a tiny lot in the inner city, right across the street from an elementary school. I get up early most days and have already put in a couple of hours before the buses start arriving. Besides, I've learned to tune out the buses intoning "Warning! This bus is about to move" and the children's chatter as they wait in the dark.

The first thing I do when I come downstairs is put on the coffee. Then I head for the overstuffed sofa that sits in the three-windowed bay in our living room. I settle in next to the round end table that's always piled high with my notebooks and journals. It's just the right height for reaching my coffee cup (and ashtray, on the days when I give in and smoke an errant cigarette) and also holds a container with my two fountain pens, a pencil and a ballpoint pen.

Across the room is a six-foot-tall bookshelf where I keep my writing and reference books, plus the magazines I plan to submit to—someday. When I need to get on the Internet, my laptop is right around the corner in my office (otherwise known as the dining room table) and my iPad is on the coffee table in front of me.

I love sitting there in the morning, with the day dawning over my shoulder through the bay windows and my cats beside me, one sprawled on top of any papers I've put on the seat cushion and the other sitting on the back of the sofa, intently watching the squirrels that scamper across our fence top. I could sit there all day in absolute silence going back and forth from one project to another.

But eventually I have to move on—there are chores to do and errands to run, and sometimes and afternoon nap to take. And eventually my husband will come home and want to sit in his favorite spot (one guess where that is). I don't mind because I know it will be mine again the next day—and besides, he's the one who fixes dinner.

Ellen Keim is a native of Columbus, Ohio, a mother of four and a grandmother of three (so far) who founded and writes for the following blogs: Femagination, I, Muslimah, and She also began the Facebook writers' community The Writers' Web, participates in local writers' groups and has published essays in online and print publications. She journals daily, and has journals going back to the '70s.

Window to the World

  by Janet Caplan

My writing room has only three walls. It is a small space carved out of my very large bedroom. I refer to it as a cubby or nook. Even though the area behind my desk chair is open to the larger room, the space feels insular and private, as if there were a real door through which to enter. My desk is pushed up against the back wall. To my right is a partial wall which allows for plenty of light yet shields the space from the bed area; the wall on my left is lined with a bookcase and a printer table that also serves as shelving for paper and notebooks. Photographs, a calendar and a stone plaque hang from these walls.

My small maple desk holds my laptop and writing implements as well as more books, cards, photos and knick-knacks. These I tend to toy with when feeling restless. There are too many of them I think and they may, in themselves, cause much distraction.

I love the entire space - it's so close and personal. But the best feature of my writing room is the skylight that's placed right above my desk. Today is a cool wet day here on Vancouver Island. The rain pings on the window before streaming down the glass. Clouds in varying shades of grey pass by and I glance up now and then hoping to see bits of blue pushing through. What I do see are the tops of a couple of giant cedars. They sway dramatically in the heavy wind.

While watching these sky and weather changes may divert my attention from the work at hand, doing so often inspires me. What I see or what I imagine may help me describe a scene more precisely, set the locale for a new story or recall a meaningful time or event in my life.

This is where I like to write; in my cubby of a room with its window open to the world.

Janet Caplan lives near Victoria on Vancouver Island. Her work has appeared in Dogs in Canada, Animal Wellness, OCEAN Magazine and Tiny Lights as well as in several anthologies and online.

Where I Like to Write

  by Pat LaPointe

At first I really resented the restrictions that had been placed on me. You see, I am a smoker, living with a non-smoker. Because of this, my smoking options have been limited. This began as a daily living problem of where to go so no one would be offended or have his or her health in jeopardy. I adapted to this restriction not only because I didn't want to harm anyone else, but, to be more honest, I just was tired of the battle.
The bigger problem arose when the restrictions affected my writing time. Much like those who say they can't have a drink without a cigarette, I can't write without one. So writing on trains, planes, and in coffee shops is out of the question. In our primary residence, I'm "allowed" to smoke in a closed off room in the basement. For the most part, I'm able to do some writing there.

Several years back we bought a tiny condo near a lake about fifty miles from our home. It was to be my writing place. I was all set to sit at the tiny desk and look out the window at all that nature had to offer, writing and smoking all the way. This was not to be. Even though it was essentially my place, the complaints and restrictions began to roll in when others joined me there: "It's too smoky in here" "Can't you go outside?" I took the outside option in the Spring, Summer and Fall, but no one in their right mind sits on the patio with snow piling up around him or her.

A compromise was reached. I set up an "office" in the bathroom. There was just enough room for a very, very small table to hold my laptop and a relatively comfortable folding chair. I found that a closed toilet seat is just right for placing the materials I need when I write. The necessary exhaust fan not only rids the room of smoke, but provides a decent source of white noise. And I can take advantage of the other benefits of the room as well. I never need to go far for a drink of water, and when nature calls, I just need to move those materials to answer it.
Although I first felt that having to write in the bathroom was possibly a sign that my writing would be, to put it more delicately, garbage, I soon found myself in that room, writing for hours at a time, regardless of the season. It was the place in which I wrote and edited much of the anthology which I recently published. This situation only causes a problem when someone else is there and needs my "office."

Now I look forward to going into my little cubby hole. I'd tell you more, but there's someone knocking on my "office" door.

Pat is currently serving as the President of Story Circle Network,, a lifewriting organization for women. She is the editor of the Changes In Life monthly online newsletter for women, and recently published an anthology of women’s stories: “The Woman I’ve Become: 37 Women Share Their Journeys From Toxic Relationships To Self Empowerment.” Pat lives in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago where she enjoys spending time with her nine grandchildren.

The Write Place at the Write Time

  by Sara Etgen-Baker

My writing area—located in a tiny nook in the loft at the top of the stairs of my two-story condo—is quiet, bright and sunny, and the light filters over my desk—a small, antique lady's writing desk that my mother-in-law graciously handed down to me.

The desk is a warm, dark-chocolate brown with fold-down writing surface that—when opened—unveils a fitted interior with a secret drawer and four cubbyholes. Inside the secret drawer I keep some of my most important writing supplies—stamps, 3x5 index cards, flash drive, and sticky notes. The cubbyholes house my crystal tape dispenser, crystal letter-opener, my reading glasses, a few mailing envelopes, my thesaurus, and a dictionary.

Once opened, the fold-down writing surface is the perfect size for my laptop; beneath this surface are three drawers with antique pull knobs that are disc-shaped with a flower petal design. Although these drawers aren't large or deep, they are sufficient enough to house my journals, folders with my notes on my current writing projects, a notebook of this year's submissions, and a notebook of published manuscripts.

Even though the top of the desk is too small to have a printer sitting on it, it is big enough for a few of my favorite knickknacks—my crystal pen holder, miniature crystal lamp, one of my mother's hand-crocheted doilies, my father's antique reading glasses, and a small-framed picture of my husband and me.

Writing at this small desk helps me, for it forces me to keep my writing life uncomplicated and uncluttered. Sitting at this unpretentious desk inspires me, for it reminds me of the beautiful simplicity of the writing life where all I need is a quiet area with sufficient lighting, a desk of some sort, a chair, a writing tool, and an idea.

So where do I like to write? At my desk at home—which is always the write place at the write time.

Sara Baker is a retired educator who now enjoys her writing life. In addition to writing essays, memoirs, and personal narratives, she has begun writing her first novel. When not writing, she enjoys spending time with her soul mate, Bill, with whom she has been married for 29 years.

In Good Company

  by Susan Bono

I have one of those offices that incites envy in my visitors: cool, quiet, self-contained, with lots of counters and bookshelves. I designed it myself and have done a lot of writing there, and yet, these days, I go around coveting everyone else's writing spaces. I stare at my friends' desk chairs and computers and notebooks and knickknacks and imagine all the wonderful things I might write in their consecrated places. Never do I see myself trapped answering email or dealing with a systems crash or staring in despair at a paragraph that just won't come together. It's kind of like doing dishes at other people's houses—because it's not my kitchen, it never quite feels like work. Other people's crying babies don't usually bother me, either. It's the burden of ongoing responsibility, the buildup of unfinished business, that tends to get me down.

But the same goes for too much variety. I need it, want it, whine for it, but put me on a train or plane, in a foreign country, or even the next county, and I'm like the family dog with its head thrust out the car window, euphoric from overstimulation. In that state I'm happy, but useless for anything more than a few "Wish you were here!" postcards. I've learned over the years how going inward is next to impossible when the world out there demands my attention.

I have found, however, that the most reliable place to write is not determined by a particular location, but a kind of situation. I like to write in a group with other writers writing.

Give me anywhere with the sound of pens softly dragging across pages, the pressure of a timer set to ring, and, as a bonus, an opportunity to share what is, by necessity, hastily generated. Whether I'm with a group in Istanbul or in my own office, my community provides the best place for me to write. While I might suffer through every moment of the experience, I always end up writing SOMETHING. Even if I don't hit pay dirt, I am often rewarded with the first glimmerings of a vein to mine. Staring at the wobbly squiggles of newly-born ideas, I rejoice in the knowledge I have fooled my inner critic, who would have stopped me at the first word if I'd been alone in my lovely office. I don't know why I'm becoming such a herd animal, but being in the same boat with other writers keeps me going.

After time in community, I need to find myself a computer and a quiet place to develop my idea, like my wonderful office, or my bed in this age of laptops. I like to read out loud to myself as I'm revising, and that's not conducive to a communal experience. Once settled in, I confess to enjoying a glimpse of green leaves or sky, and a window cracked to let air circulate. When I start to get lonely or distracted, I bring to mind the sound of moving pens, the occasional sigh, sneeze or cough from all those wonderful writers who helped get me this far, and who will always be a part of the story.

Susan Bono is writing with others in Sonoma County, CA.

Rocking Chair Philosopher

  by Theresa Sanders

Words unveil themselves in the soft, dark hours of morning, in the obscurity of shadow or trick of light, in the simplicity of steady movement. Sometimes, cradled within the arms of my rocking chair, I think I can hear my own heartbeat. Look north, and evidence of the sun's waking begins outside, illuminating the back of my neighbor's house. Look south, and the living room behind me is still black as night.

This is my favorite time and place to write, when I'm fresh from bed and alone with my thoughts, when the most discernible sound is my pencil scratching across paper. There is miracle in the silence of morning, a choreography to the motion of my rocking chair that time itself has shaped. Possibly, the experience is innate. It is as grand as the pull of tides, yet as intimate as a mother's embrace. It is a time closest to sleep, yet removed from sleep. It is prayer at rest, yet prayer in action. It is a journey inward, yet a challenge to remain inward.

Mahatma Gandhi said that in the attitude of silence the soul finds its path in a clearer light. I'm not always able to achieve that clearness, though I do know I'll be at a serious deficit if I don't get my morning time. As the day advances and I move to my computer, it takes everything I have to stay centered. Distractions abound: a blaring car radio, a ringing doorbell, my husband's voice in conference because he also works from home. The phone is my companion, I shall not want, but sometimes words, even entire paragraphs, die on the sword of the frequent text or call. I read recently that when we are engaged in complete concentration and get interrupted, it takes the brain twenty-five minutes to return to its previous level of concentration. I am often trapped in that twenty-five minute loop. Brain science sees writer's block in terms of limbic-system overrides and repressed fight-or-flight, but all I feel is frustration. Writer's block is still writer's block and devastatingly real. I am terrified of an unfocused mind, material that won't flow, the unforgiving glare of a blank computer screen.

And yet, I don't despair, this rocking chair philosopher, for I have encountered moments of crystal clarity. I have shed tears and felt my heart expand with joy and known the exact instant when words are no longer words, but feelings. And when day is done and I am tired of words, there is comfort in tomorrow's promise. For in the soft, dark hours of morning, when I am fresh from bed and the sun is just opening its eyes, I will be cradled once more within the arms of my rocking chair, and I will write in peace.

Theresa Sanders lives with her husband near St. Louis, Missouri, where her rocking chair is ever in motion. Connect with her on LinkedIn or Facebook. She also welcomes email (This submission references information highlighted in a fascinating article in the January/February 2013 issue of Poets & Writers magazine titled “The Inspired Mind: A Window Into the Writer’s Brain,” by Arnie Cooper.)

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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