Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

How does control factor into your writing? (03/15/14)

Featured writer: Arlene Mandell

Contributors this month:
Arlene Mandell
Carole Mertz
Jean Wong
Marilyn Petty
Pamela Rands
Susan Bono

Hold the Fiddle

by Arlene Mandell

Most often I simply let words spill onto the page, pressing the keys as fast as I can. I print out the poem or essay before reading it silently, then aloud. Because I have a tendency to read quickly on the screen, creating a paper copy is an important step. Next I try to let the piece rest a day to a week before adding, deleting, changing the formatting, then let it rest again. Before I submit work to an editor, I read once more because the Word imp may have added a malicious semicolon. I'm always mindful that too much fiddling can defuse the energy and originality of the work.

Arlene Mandell has been published nearly 1000 times, including pieces in 24 anthologies.

Hold the Fiddle

  by Arlene Mandell

Most often I simply let words spill onto the page, pressing the keys as fast as I can. I print out the poem or essay before reading it silently, then aloud. Because I have a tendency to read quickly on the screen, creating a paper copy is an important step. Next I try to let the piece rest a day to a week before adding, deleting, changing the formatting, then let it rest again. Before I submit work to an editor, I read once more because the Word imp may have added a malicious semicolon. I'm always mindful that too much fiddling can defuse the energy and originality of the work.

Arlene Mandell has been published nearly 1000 times, including pieces in 24 anthologies.

The Control of the Crow

  by Carole Mertz

I feel control is so much like the crow that swoops down, picks up the tasty morsel and flies off carrying away your superb idea, your gentle tone, or your graceful image into the clouds.

You want to keep that crow down on the ground awhile, pecking there in the dust with you, as you peck through your sentences, allowing them to grow or diminish as they will, allowing the seeds to nourish you, and allowing you time to fatten at your own pace. You sample randomly this and that. You need time for your ideas to acquaint themselves with you. You may even need time to wallow a bit, either in their frailties or their fruitfulness.

There will be time for the control of the crow later, when the skies brighten, and the time for editing is upon you, when a clearer reading will reveal the redundancies, the lapses, and the missing commas. Then you'll cast off the unnecessaries. You'll let them drop recklessly to the ground, even as you attempt to fend off the crow's next swoop.

Control, sometimes the enemy, sometimes the friend, is needed. It depends on how you use it. "Caw, caw, caw!" it cries. And we must heed.

Carole Mertz writes in Parma, Ohio. She cares for her husband, his writing and her own, along with “pets” which come too frequently in the form of peeves. After thirty odd publications, she struggles on. So many take-offs, so many crash landings, a few arrivals. It’s a bumpy journey.
E-Mail Carole Mertz

Who's in Control?

  by Jean Wong

I have to totally acknowledge I am a control freak—-no way am I what I always wanted to be-—a sort of Zen in-the-moment, hippy dippy, ex-sixties flower child. I take no pleasure in the oozy, slimy swamp of the unformed and terror-filled unknown. I like a nice handy tool, a wrench, the screwdriver of life, so I can turn one way—-only one, and make sure my future, past, and present is permanent, guaranteed, insured, and secure.

What do I need to control? Everything. All my seconds, hours, days, weeks. I want to know exactly what I will be doing this week and next so that each day is determined to make me, the person with the enormous appetite for security, to become even happier than the day before.

What makes me unhappy? Things I can't control, like my bout with chemo last summer when I was unable to feast on a delicious meal everyday, and instead was only able to look at soft boiled eggs or a few rice crackers.

And my body shifted into weakling mode with no power to implement my Samsonian urges to go out in the garden and hoe, weed, and wallow in controlling each little blade of grass that comes out of the ground. My blob of a carcass was banished to the bedroom, under the covers, sleeping the day away, energy seeping out like a flat tire.

What kind of control is it when my oncologist says I have a ten percent chance of getting the dreaded C disease back. Should I be happy that it really means I have a ninety per cent chance of NOT getting it again? On the other hand, if you get a coupon with a ten percent discount, that seems like a lot. I'd really prefer better odds than ten percent please.

And what about writing? Lately my head feels like an over-ripe spaghetti squash. Where are my inspiration, vision, and ah ha moments? Gone, gone, nowhere to be found. Will the juices ever flow again? Now I am relegated to doing nothing but trying to get my blankety-blank book out and am just operating on the soulless finance, promotion aspects of the writing world. Will there ever again be those flights of fancy where a piece of the puzzle comes flying from one side of the room and locks into place with the other piece that has been sitting under my left ear for the last six months?

I want to write about love, suffering, death, illusion, self deception, but mostly about love and its underbelly, hate-—and then more love. Love between mother and child, friends and enemy, man and woman, a blue romantic swirling ocean of soapy, turbulent, gooey entanglement.

Come back to me my muse! Float lightly and land gently anywhere-—the top of my head, the tip of my little toe. Embrace me with your soft stirrings, smile upon your lost child. I promise should you deign to approach, I shall kiss the hem of your literary garment, banish skepticism, and self-satisfaction. Then, I'll become a believer of your existence and never again usurp your rightful place as the true author of my works.

Jean Wong is an award winning author writing fiction, memoir, poetry, and plays. Her work has been produced at Sixth Street Playhouse, Petaluma Reader's Theater, and Off the Page. Her book, “Sleeping with the Gods,” has recently been released.
When writing Jean sometimes prods along like a mule—at other times a brilliant race horse speeds by. Whatever the process, she's amazed to be alive and able to tell the tale! Jean Wong's Blog

Says Who

  by Marilyn Petty

It's good to have a designated time each day for writing, or so They say. Maybe you start out sharpening all your pencils, even if you use a computer. Or you may indulge in a few games of solitaire like Maya Angelou does prior to tackling a writing job. Such idle preliminaries are a way of waking your muse. Or so They say. Still, you are the boss, in charge, in control.

I imagine I am in control when I assign myself time to get to work and write. I also like to play a few games of solitaire first. After that, I make myself write a sentence or two, or type in the title, or stare out the window before succumbing to more solitaire. And so it goes —-more card playing, less writing. Now, I am danger of losing control. I am neither writing words or winning solitaire.

Eventually, I achieve a rough draft. Solitaire has become excruciatingly boring and a deadline is approaching. Time to assume (some) control. Delete and revise, read and reread. I factor in better words, clearer sentences. It begins to sound real. That is when I can claim control of my writing—-when it says what I want to say.

Marilyn Petty wins some and loses some in Northern California.

True Freedom

  by Pamela Rands

I remember the joy of completely abandoning control. Being eight years old on a hot summer's day and the familiar and beloved bell of the ice cream truck coming down the road. How we would drop everything, running to beg a dollar from our mother, and tearing down the street, sometimes barefoot, hair streaming into the wind, laughing and screaming for the truck to stop. As if our entire lives depended on that truck stopping, as if nothing else mattered in the whole wide world. The perfect, unadulterated joy of the ice cream truck. Nothing else could bring us so entirely into the moment, ready to abandon all control, fully able to enjoy this one life we had.

And maybe, as I think of it now, it was not really so much about the ice cream (though it was always delicious) but the experience of complete unrestrained happiness and anticipation and wonder. It was before the adult voices of reason came in. These voices that would later warn us of the dangers of too much sugar and how overly expensive the ice cream was, how it was really a rip off and you could probably go to the store and buy a whole carton of it for that price.

But how can pure joy be a rip off?

This is how control does NOT factor into my writing! For me the joy of writing is that I can write without stopping, without thinking, without ANY critical reason or adult like rationale! I do not have to write within the lines of life. I do not have to be confined by rules or propriety. I do not! I can say NO to everything or I can say YES to everything. Or I can waffle back and forth ridiculously, insanely, and completely impracticably.

I can let the writing muse out of the gates of reason and control. It can buck and tear about wildly. It can dig up all the nice green grass if it wants to, snorting and spitting and spewing out green slimy mush. It can trample over the nicely groomed lawns recklessly with no worry of judgement. I can write for the pure freedom of it. This one thing that I can rarely do in life--I can let go of all control with no consequences.

My journal welcomes me with open arms and it does not have a ledger, a scorecard, or a grand jury. I am free to run wildly around in it. I can enter new worlds, make up whole new galaxies. I can spin in a circle if I want until I am so dizzy; I fall--exhausted, exhilarated, completely spent--to the ground. But I do not get hurt. Instead, I just sit still as the world about me spins, waiting for it to slow down. Appreciating the stillness again, seeing the world with new eyes, enjoying the glory of this amazing life.

Pam Rands lives and writes in Penfield, NY. She still loves ice cream and always lets her children buy from the ice cream truck, even though she could buy two cartons for the same price.

Taking Note

  by Susan Bono

It starts the moment I take pen in hand: the longing to create the perfect way into my essay, poem, story, or grocery list. If only I could start right, I'd fly right. I am convinced of this, even after repeated reminders that perfection isn't possible. But that desire, so consuming, still rises in me like a warm red fog. It's a form of lust, I think, tantalizing and full of promise, which is probably one of the reasons I don't push it away the moment I sense it beginning to gather.

But once the yearning for perfection overtakes me, I am paralyzed. Instead of a lovely first sentence that naturally leads to the next and the next, I am slammed with grief for Paradise lost. Then come the scratch-outs, the hems and haws. I second guess so hard and fast that my pages are visual disasters with blots and inserts and illegible letters that leave me wondering who lives in my head and what they're trying to tell me.

I do manage to write, but after all these years, I am still learning to let go of the urge to control the story that is trying to emerge. It is being told to me in a voice so timid and hesitant that my own doubts can easily overwhelm it. What I need more of is the self-control that allows me to simply listen and take dictation.

Susan Bono is learning to take notes 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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