Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What's one writing habit you wish you'd acquire? (12/15/06)

Featured writer: Betty Winslow

Contributors this month:
Arlene L. Mandell
Betty Winslow
Geri Digiorno
Paula Matzinger
Polly Oliver
Susan Bono

Betty Winslow

I wish I could make myself sit down and query ideas as soon as I get them.
Several times in the past, I've opened a magazine and seen an article on a topic I would like to have written about and maybe even thought about pitching, written by someone else. I need to stop mulling over ideas so long and just pitch the darned things!

Betty Winslow, mulling and pitching in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Arlene L. Mandell

I wish, oh how I wish, I could flick that irritating editor off my shoulder and smush her till she crawls behind the dictionaries on my bookshelf. Whenever I'm bopping along, writing about cole slaw, old boyfriends, and the joys of shea butter, she's nattering: "That sequence makes no sense." Well, it was making sense, sort of, to me, till she interfered.

If only I could write a first draft from beginning to end, without HER and without stopping to attend those squiggly red lines, which right now are signaling that "smush" and "shea" are misspelled. What sparkling prose and scintillating poetry I could send out into the world!

Oh the joys of "first thought, best thought" as Allen Ginsberg advised, quoting the great Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Silence WordPerfect editor! I have not spelled that name incorrectly.

Arlene Mandell misspelled one word on the New York English Regents exam in 1957 and has been haunted ever since.

Betty Winslow

I wish I could make myself sit down and query ideas as soon as I get them.
Several times in the past, I've opened a magazine and seen an article on a topic I would like to have written about and maybe even thought about pitching, written by someone else. I need to stop mulling over ideas so long and just pitch the darned things!

Betty Winslow, mulling and pitching in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Geri Digiorno

One writing habit I wish I had is spelling and pucuation. (It will never happen.)But how about a real habit when writing? I need more structure of my time...

Geri Digiorno is the Poet Laureate of Sonoma County.

Paula Matzinger

What's a writing habit I'd like to acquire? Small organizational tactics. Yes, I need to write more regularly, have a better plan for increasing my knowledge and skills about writing, systematically follow the convoluted paths to publishing. But I think the habit (or habits) that would help my writing career the most would be to do all those little organizational things that should be immediate and automatic - like putting my pens back in the cup on my desk. I'm always mislaying them. Where do they go? Another would be having ready the appropriate folders or computer files for stashing each stage of my poems or essays:

-First Draft
-Second Draft
-More than Possibilities
-Almost Finished
-Ready to Send

Most importantly - I would need to actually do the stashing - as I finish each stage of my work, before I shut my computer down for the day.

Other small organizational habits I'd like to acquire would be simple things like making sure each piece of writing is dated for first draft or revisions. I can't tell you how many times I pull up a poem on my computer and not only is it not in a current file, but I haven't dated it. The computer posts a date when I last worked on it. But I can't rely on that date in that sometimes when I backup my files - the posted date is the backup date.

Speaking of backing up - that is, by far, the most difficult organizational problem I have - which I'd like to overcome - by some organizational habit - that I haven't figured out yet. When I backup or transfer files from my desk computer to my flashdrive to my laptop to my flashdrive to my desk computer - I totally get mixed up as to where my most current work is.

Not filed, not dated and no pens to date or categorize the hardcopies - as I said, I haven't developed the habits yet for keeping this all straight. But even if I figured it all out - I don't know if I would actually do it.

Paula Matzinger is taking it one step at a time in Sebastopol, California.

One Writing Habit I Wish to Acquire

  by Polly Oliver

I am trying to establish the habit of writing in the afternoon. I am an early morning person, eager, full of go before daylight about five and have found this is my best writing time. But after lunch and a short snooze, I feel my muse has taken flight for the beach or the Napa Valley. I can force some writing in the afternoons, say two to four or five, which are three good hours, but the outcome is flat, characters are half asleep, ideas are zero.

I live in the woods, my afternoon hours hang, wasting, the phone doesn't ring, the woods are quiet, seems even the birds are resting. A deer will amble through the yard, ears alert, a squirrel will sit on the porch peeling a hickory nut. A fire in the fireplace pushes forth warmth and most of the time dinner is pre-planned and needs little preparation. So why isn't my writing flowing out through all this quietness?

What about the writers who say in interviews that they write from eight to four. What about those who say they relish evening hours when the house is quiet: eight to eleven, nine to one. My house is quiet all afternoon and into the evening hours. It's simply time wasted when one's writing self takes flight. How will I ever get the hundreds of essay ideas that come zinging in from the Ďidea dimension' every morning written if my muse takes every afternoon off. I have begged, pleaded, offered a second glass of red wine at my four p.m. wine time. All offers have failed.

My New Year's resolutions include writing my first novel. Seven or eight hours a day will be necessary. I'm willing to try anything. Perhaps my muse is in good form from one a.m. to noon. I've not tried finding out if its awake before five a.m. Hey, this is a good thought; perhaps my muse is home and is waiting for me from one a.m. until I awaken at five. I've not thought of this before. This means I'll could go to bed at six p.m. and sleep until one a.m. I'll arise to find my muse has come home and is eager to go and flourish from one a.m. to noon. That's nearly twelve hours! I have never heard of a writer using these hours. If I can acquire this habit --- writing from one a.m. to noon --- won't it make an interesting interview?

Polly Oliver livesin East Texas in the piney woods. She says, "Iíve been playing with writing for years and years and the deer and squirrels have told me that all I truly need is a commitment to simply shut up, quite studying and write."

It's a Gift

  by Susan Bono

It's been a tough year for my family, with lots of changes, most of them unwelcome. My relationship with my eighty-two-year father is going through a particularly rough patch. As his power declines, I must step in to take up the slack. We are both having some trouble with that. In our exchanges, I've been alternating between holding my tongue until I choke or letting loose storms of argument.

On Christmas Eve, some remark Dad made triggered the now-familiar urge to differ with him. I even let a few of my cold, hard objections begin to frost the air between us. It looked like we'd be having a white Christmas. But by some miracle that might only happen at the holidays, it was as if another person, a remarkably wise and reasonable woman, took up residence at the control panel inside my head. I felt my own voice break like sun through the clouds when it calmly said, "Oh, I'm sorry. My mistake. I thought you wanted my opinion."

And for the rest of our visit, I was frost free.

It is indeed a grievous thing for a middle-aged daughter to realize that her father has no tolerance for any opinion but his own. It is even harder when that daughter makes her living dispensing her insights to many who profess gratitude. However, there is much to be said for the editor or daughter who knows when her opinion, however brilliant and well-intentioned, is not being solicited. If she assumes her insights will always be welcome, she is only one step away from expecting those on the receiving end to agree with, maybe even follow, her suggestions. In that, she may be more like her father than she cares to admit.

I read somewhere that it's easy to tell the difference between a request and a demand, even if the person asking uses identical words and tone. A request can be agreed to or rejected without negative consequences. A demand, however, when denied, tends to stir up trouble. My opinion, if I truly value it, must never be squandered on those who are not interested. More importantly, I must be careful to identify those times when my so-called offer of aid is really a demand to be listened to.

I suspect that learning to hold onto my two cents may be a tough habit for me to acquire. I will be forced to stop, look, and listen as I would at a busy intersection or railroad crossing. But proceeding with caution and navigating my way to safety will, of course, be its own best reward. How lovely to save my opinion and the breath required to deliver it for those who are willing to hear me. Some day, when silence is called for, it may end up costing me nothing.

Susan Bono looks for gifts that keep on giving 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 2000ó2005 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 devilís-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 heíd 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. Davidís 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.

Back to Searchlights & Signal Flares