Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

Whose advice do you listen to? (01/15/08)

Featured writer: Susan Bono

Contributors this month:
Arlene L. Mandell
Betty Rodgers
Christine Falcone
Christine Swint
Dan Coshnear
Don Edgers
Marilyn Petty
Nancy Wallace-Nelson
Pat Olivier
Susan Bono

Not As I Do

by Susan Bono

After years of pretending to be sensible and agreeable, I am finally ready to confess that I listen to no one. I am so assiduously reluctant to follow advice, I usually don't even heed my own. Instead, I let blind hunches and knee-jerk reactions fool me into thinking I'm tuning in to the voice of reason, when in truth, I'm just bashing around in the dark.

Most of the time, this method suits me just fine, because with no one to tell me it's already been done, I get to re-invent the wheel over and over again. Clever. Even if I'm traveling the same old road, those ever-changing wheels—sometimes smooth, sometimes jouncy—help me feel like I'm on the path to new horizons. I keep myself so busy figuring out every blessed thing for myself, I don't have time to think about what I don't know or could be learning.

On rare occasions when I allow those who share my opinions to get through my blinders, mufflers and generally thick skull, you'll hear me say, "Oh, of course, that's it exactly!" In moments like these, you'll find me grateful for advice, as long as I don't have to change anything.

Susan Bono is working on her wheels in Petaluma, CA.

Consider the Options

  by Arlene L. Mandell

I am fortunate to have two sources of writing advice. One I will share and the other I must hoard. For the past six years Iʼve been a member of the Scribe Tribe, a collective of seven brilliant, quirky women ranging in age from 31 to 78. We meet twice a month for a light supper and heavy insight. No wimpy adjectives or errant commas escape their diligent pens.

My second source is Ms. Lallygag, who tells me to put the piece aside for an hour, a week or a year, make a pot of soup, take a trip to Yellowstone, or, in the immortal words of my fellow Brooklynites, fuggaboutit. She has been known to feed essays to the retriever, who prefers pillows, and spill ink on shaky stanzas. When the writing resurfaces, I usually know how to fix it, but can always return to Option A, my beloved Scribe Tribe.

Arlene L. Mandell has filled two filing cabinets with writing since retiring nine years ago from teaching at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ, and has been published more than 400 times.

Consider the Source

  by Betty Rodgers

"Betty, I'd really like your advice."

Advice. Everyone likes to be asked. We have opinions and jump at the chance to express them. We're flattered, even satisfied when our perceived wisdom is heeded. Disgruntled when it isn't.

My husband once proclaimed it's impossible to give unbiased advice. I took exception to that. After all, don't we usually have the best interests of our advisees at heart? Wouldn't it be totally unfair to inflict our own personal persuasion on someone else? Isn't good advice a byproduct of trust and friendship? Upon further deliberation, though, I began to observe the truth of Ken's remark.

When overhearing, for example, "Honey, why apply to the University of Idaho when you've already been accepted at Boise State here in town," I immediately understood it to mean, "You'll just barely be out of high school, and I'm not ready for you to leave home yet." And here's a good one, "Sounds like it's time to stand up for yourself and file for a divorce." "I never liked the creep, anyway," comes through loud and clear.

Thus convinced, I began to listen to my own advice and rely less on others. When mulling over whether I'm writing stronger poetry or short stories these days, I answer, "It doesn't matter, you just need to write." Sometimes I just don't even care about writing anymore . . . what should I do? "Get over it. You have important things to say," I respond. I'd like to submit to Searchlights and Signal Flares, but I'm uncertain about writing essay. "Hmm, I don't know what to think about that. Maybe you should ask Ken."

Aha, a crack in the foolproof plan. I did ask Ken, and what did he reply? "Go for it. What have you got to lose?" So there it is—I still allow myself to seek advice, especially from my wise husband. Ulterior motive, a happy wife? Maybe it's not so bad after all. In this case, advice was a much-needed kick in the keister.

Betty Rodgers is currently seeking advice about possible destinations for her next photography outing. Email Betty

Whose advice do you listen to?

  by Christine Falcone

When it comes to gardening or cooking, I listen to my mother-in-law. If I have a computer problem, I call Apple Technical Support. If mine is a mechanical problem, I listen to my husband. In other words, I try to seek out the advice of people knowledgeable in a particular area. That's why, when it comes to writing, I consult with other writers--especially ones whose work I admire.

I belong to a writing group and I trust their opinions and suggestions more than anyone else's. They are the ones in the trenches, day in and day out, fighting the good fight-- or should I say writing the good write? Theirs is the advice I most often listen to, and with good reason. So far, it's been their advice that's allowed me to breathe new life into my stories, identify a problem of logistics or "house keeping" as they say, or to beef up a formerly flimsy character. Theirs is the advice I listen to because I respect them as readers and as writers. They're yet to steer me wrong.

Christine Falcone is listening to the advice of the weatherman these days and waiting for the roads to open so she can get up to Kirkwood for some fresh powder skiing!

Whose advice do you listen to?

  by Christine Swint

In his book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card recommends developing a relationship with a "wise reader." He suggests finding a close friend, or a spouse, who would be willing to risk hurting your feelings in order to give you the writer honest feedback on your work. But he also cautions to make sure this wise reader has your ultimate success at heart.

When it comes to short stories, my husband is my go-to man. Before he reads, I tell him what I want him to look for. I ask, "Do you ever get bored? Does anything seem not right or out of place? Are any of the characters unbelievable or unnecessary? In the back of my mind I know what needs to be fixed, but sometimes I'm too close to my precious words to cut them out, even after a cooling-off period.

One of my most recent stories started at 4,000 words, but after my husband read it and provided feedback, it ended up at 1,800. He noted several digressions that bogged down the story. What a delight to cut out all that verbiage! Because I had engaged his help with specific questions, he knew what to look for. His straightforward opinion about what he found in the story confirmed what I already knew deep down.

At the end of the day, I listen to my own advice, from my own inner wisdom. But sometimes it takes the help of a good friend for me to sound out what my heart is trying to tell me.

Christine Swint

Christine Swint studied English and Spanish at the University of Georgia, and Spanish literature at Middlebury College in Spain. She writes poetry, fiction, and personal essays in Spanish and English. She lives in metro Atlanta with her husband, two teenage sons, and two dogs, Raf and Duffy. After teaching in the public high school for several years, she now teaches yoga in local community centers.

Christine Swint's Website

Whose Advice?

  by Dan Coshnear

I'm not saying this is a good thing, but I listen to people who aren't shouting at me. I listen to people who wear sensible shoes, unless what I want to know is where to buy senseless shoes. I try to think about the motivation of the advice-giver. Can I ever know? No.

But here's an example: We (my wife and two children and daughter's friend and me) were driving back from near South Lake Tahoe and stopped in Sacramento at a convenience store for snacks and directions. The woman behind the counter said she didn't live in the area and she didn't know where anything was, including downtown. Did I want her advice? No. Not on the subject in question. But her modesty earned my trust and I would have asked her about something else if not for pressure from the kids to find 1) a movie theater, and 2) Chinese food.

So then, a woman who happened to be in line with us followed us out of the store and told us not once but eleven times, we must go visit Old Sac. (That's short for Old Sacramento, but it conjured other images in my mind.) The first two times she said it, I thought fine, maybe we will. When it got to be near half a dozen, I thought, probably not. This is too important to her. She was in flip-flops and we were in snow boots. We were strangers, yet she seemed to have no hesitation.

I caught myself semi-consciously building a case against her. Why, if she were a local, was she out on the edge of town shopping at a convenience store? She bought cleaning products. Does she like to pay double what they're worth? Maybe she has no concept of money. Maybe she owns Old Sac. Maybe there's something she doesn't want us to see and it is everywhere except in Old Sac.

My children and my daughter's friend were sitting on a curb under a street lamp peeling off boots and wet socks and eating chocolate covered raisins. I'd been with them all day so I wasn't watching them closely until I noticed the way the persistent woman was looking at them-- adoringly.

Now, out of the car, under the unusual light, tuned in as they were, each to her own feet, pausing occasionally to pop a chocolate raisin, they were kind of adorable. I felt glad to know them. And then I felt grateful to the woman for helping me see them in this way, i.e. sentimentally.

In fact, I was overcome with a feeling--a feeling that life is racing by and this moment is important--the same feeling I presumed the woman was feeling, only in her case she was remembering some experience she'd had with her own children, now fully grown living in different time zones, calling or texting only on holidays, having long ago lost the kind of innocence one exhibits when one looks hard for the source of pain in a cold foot or the happy witlessness one shows when chewing a chocolate raisin, and that for her this sentiment was bound up with a place called Old Sac.

Yeah, I thought, I'll take her advice because she hadn't steered me wrong yet.

Dan Coshnear is on the prowl for the sensible and the senseless in Sonoma County, CA.

Whose advice do you listen to?

  by Don Edgers

Writers listen to feedback and advice from a mélange of responders who may actually ‘give a rip' about what writers write. Those listened to might include: Relatives, instructors, friendly critics (writing group), other writers, editors, self.

When Ernest Hemingway was writing The Sun Also Rises he listened to writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. Three years later, when he was finishing A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway still listened to Fitzgerald clear up to the ending of the book which Fitzgerald advised him to re-do. After about three dozen rewrites, Ernest finally listened to (trusted) himself and dismissed his mentor's advice. The ending turned out just fine.

I was fortunate to have a retired journalism and English professo, author of many articles and several books, mentor me for most of my first book. Though I thought I did just fine-- I had many lessons to learn. When he passed away, I turned to my wife as a proofreader and advisor.

My latest book, Fox Island, went through four separate editors whose advice I adhered to and managed to complete in three months. Yes, my posterior spent many hours asleep and numb as I plugged along, ignoring my wife's advice to "come to bed!" We're still married (42 years) and the book will be released March 12, 2008 (and hopefully my rear end will have recovered).

Don Edgers, a retired teacher, lives, writes and dances in Port Orchard, WA. Check out his books @ Amazon

Whose advice do you listen to?

  by Marilyn Petty

My mother was no slouch at offering advice. No holds barred, giving no quarter, she usually prefaced her counsel with, "You're going to have to ...." filling in the blank with whatever you were going to have to do — pick raspberries, tell the children to clean their rooms, stand up straight, give up or take down; any topic she deemed advisable. My mother-in-law, infinitely more subtle, disguised her advice with humor and affection to show her children how to live an exemplary life — keep the copper cooking pots polished, get fresh air, clean, save everything.

With Mother's direct approach you knew where she, and you, stood. With Virginia, you were left with the nagging feeling that you had been maneuvered, ever so nicely, into doubting your own capabilities. Both women knew what was best and I did my best to ignore most of their advice.

Free advice, freely given, is apparently the duty of not only concerned elders but busybodies and buttinskis who rejoice in trumpeting their own self-importance while telling you what to do. Thankfully, my father, distant and imposing as he was, would gently suggest that I might want to consider another view point on the rare occasions when he offered advice. I always listened and would have done well to heed it a time or two when I didn't.

Nowadays, I pay mind to one piece of invaluable advice that I have taken to heart. It's like this; I sit at the computer, my fingers hanging limp over the keyboard, my mind a muddle, looking for the right words that won't come. "Just say what you want to say," I tell myself. It's my advice and it's worth taking.

Marilyn Petty knows who to listen to in Santa Rosa, CA.

Defining Advice

  by Nancy Wallace-Nelson

As is my wont when writing essays, I go to my favorite dictionary to look up key words. "Ad vis(us)" is the root of advice: "ad" the Latin word meaning "to, toward or about", and "vis(us)," a form of the verb meaning to see. The dictionary also says to look up "visage," which means "face," especially referring to seeing the specific features of a face or countenance. It appears, then, that whatever "advice" you choose to attend is a call to look, to see and to take careful note of all the details about which the advice-giver is talking and/or writing.

In my thirties, I collected advice books on writing. I endangered the seams of my bookcases as I filled them with a plethora of "how-to" books on everything from how to make a fortune in magazine writing, to how to write best-selling short stories, to how to write a gripping memoir. Now two decades later, I realize how few of those exuberant, claiming-to-be definitive books I actually read with the true intent of taking "advice," that is, noting salient features. I also realize that trying to collect advice from others was a distraction from the work of finding my own writing voice, and doing the daily work of honing that voice. What "advice" books tell you is how the discussed techniques work for the author's voice, but they do not know your voice, so they cannot nurture and support your specific voice. Only doing "the work" can do that.

I want to tell a monk story, but cannot cite the source. The young novice was moaning to the old priest that he was repentant and ashamed because he did not do his kitchen duties as unselfishly as Father So and So, nor say his prayers as dutifully as another Father, nor work as tirelessly in the garden as yet another Father. The wise elder priest stopped the young man before he went any farther with his litany, and said, "When you get to heaven, the Lord will not ask you why you didn't do a better job at being Father So and So. He will ask why you did not do the job of being yourself."

To me, that's the best advice I can follow, in my writing, as well as in all other areas of my living: seeing toward myself, in the true sense of "advice," noting all the details in the countenance of being me. And in that I'll find my voice

Nancy Wallace-Nelson has loved words, and been happily writing since second grade. In grade school, she was often found trying to enlist neighbor kids and classmates to act in her plays. Some of her happiest early writing was for her high school newspaper, where she was famous for an ongoing "advice" column. And more recently she has become infamous for her passionate letters to local newspapers. She's fortunate to live in Mendocino, where she juggles constantly to find enough time for all the writing and and painting she wants to do.


  by Pat Olivier

Advice! Advice! I'm always on the prowl for good advice but I never seem to get any.

VOICE: Because you don't listen.

ME: Who said that? Who are you?

VOICE: You know who I am.

ME: Never heard this voice before, and I always listen. In fact, I'm known as a good listener. So stop bugging me.

VOICE: Ha! To listen is an act of love, humility, obeisance. Someone or something you attend to with respect. Like growing African Violets or orchids. None of which you can do. Because you don't listen.

ME: What has growing plants got to do with listening? According to my dictionary…to listen is to be in a listening state. (I just hate dictionaries that send you round and round like a dog chasing its tail.) Nothing about growing plants. I'm always in a listening state. I'm listening to your mouth running.

VOICE: Then you should know who I am. I speak to you often. Sometimes I ring bells to get your attention but you are never in a listening state and you don't respect me. My advice is unequivocal.

ME: Nobody's advice is that good.

VOICE: That's your problem. Arrogance.

ME: Well say something worth listening to.

VOICE: (Sighing deeply) Your writing does not have to be perfect. Just start.

ME: You call that unequivocal advice! I've heard those same words so many times from so many different people.

VOICE: My point exactly. You wear me out with your so called "listening."

ME: Who are you? You don't know anything about me. Why should I listen to you?

VOICE: I know all about you. Now write this down twenty-one times--My writing does not have to be perfect. All I need to do is start.

ME: Is this a test, some kind of trick? What if I don't do it?

VOICE: I will slap you silly.Only joking.

ME: You better be.

VOICE: I only see nineteen sentences. You just don't listen. I said twenty-one,

ME: But this is so stupid.

VOICE: Two more times please.

ME: Okay, okay.

VOICE: What did you learn from that exercise?

ME: Learn? I knew this was a trick.

VOICE: Well. Is it good advice or not?

ME: (grudgingly)Okay. You win.


ME: What more do you want from me?

VOICE: Speak my name.

ME: The Ghost of Christmas past?

VOICE:(sighing deeply). A little respect wouldn't be bad.

ME: My Inner Voice, Self. Whatever.

VOICE: You really are a tough nut. Trying to get you to listen to my advice is making me old before my time.

Pat Olivier is a writer who hears advice worth sharing at Searchlights & Signal Flares.

Not As I Do

  by Susan Bono

After years of pretending to be sensible and agreeable, I am finally ready to confess that I listen to no one. I am so assiduously reluctant to follow advice, I usually don't even heed my own. Instead, I let blind hunches and knee-jerk reactions fool me into thinking I'm tuning in to the voice of reason, when in truth, I'm just bashing around in the dark.

Most of the time, this method suits me just fine, because with no one to tell me it's already been done, I get to re-invent the wheel over and over again. Clever. Even if I'm traveling the same old road, those ever-changing wheels—sometimes smooth, sometimes jouncy—help me feel like I'm on the path to new horizons. I keep myself so busy figuring out every blessed thing for myself, I don't have time to think about what I don't know or could be learning.

On rare occasions when I allow those who share my opinions to get through my blinders, mufflers and generally thick skull, you'll hear me say, "Oh, of course, that's it exactly!" In moments like these, you'll find me grateful for advice, as long as I don't have to change anything.

Susan Bono is working on her wheels 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 2000—2005 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 devil’s-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 he’d 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. David’s 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.

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