Who Cooks for You!?

Chef-journalist Anthony Bourdain’s death last week brought to mind the chefs I’ve known, including the one I married.

I first encountered this band of pirates (the only men in uniform I find sexy) when my roommate-boyfriend became the pantry chef at the Fess Hotel in 1982. It was one of Madison’s finest restaurants.

By the mid-1990s, we had begun our ritual of Sunday day-hikes in the Baraboo Bluffs. Jim had moved on to work for other restaurants, all on the fine-dining end of the spectrum, all staffed with pirates of the sort Bourdain introduced to the world when his book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly was published in 2000.

One Sunday—it would have been a winter day in late 1992 or early ‘93–we invited two of Jim’s chef coworkers to join us. when we picked them up at their house, they loaded plump backpacks into the car.

We drove an hour into the hills, then parked at the side of the road at the base of Pine Hollow, west of Baraboo. We hiked up the frozen creek, working hard as we clambered over fallen tree branches from winter storms. Water burbled happily under the layer of ice in the hollow. Owls hooted from the ridgeline.

Our party reached a sandstone overhang and stopped to rest in its shelter. The three chefs opened their backpacks. Out came a thermos of mulled wine, another of coq-au-vin. Out came a loaf of crusty bread, a paper sleeve of sliced roast beef, crumbly cheeses. Out tumbled an assortment of chocolates.

Hungry from the hike, we tore into the feast. Then we sat back to enjoy its afterglow. Weak sun filtered down through bare trees. The stream continued its happy song. The owls called from above.

“Who cooks for you?” they asked. “Who cooks for you?”

I looked around at the handsome trio of chefs now reclining on the loose sand at the outcropping’s base. They do, I thought. Who cooks for me? The best chefs of Madison.

Whether in down jackets or chefs’ whites, a foodie is always a foodie. Those of us who get to live with them are lucky indeed.

©  2018 Sarah White

Posted in Sarah's memoir | 1 Comment

That’s It!! Butt Out!

By Melodee Currier

When I was a little girl, I remember being fascinated with cigarettes – the chocolate and bubblegum kind. It was a real treat when my parents bought them for me.  They were smokers and I felt so grown up when I had my own candy cigarettes.

At five years old, my parents divorced and twice a year I was put on an airplane to visit my father in Miami Beach.  In those days, the airlines had a policy of giving each passenger a sample pack of cigarettes.  It was a real treat when the flight attendants let me pass them out to the other passengers.

When I was fourteen, after a flight, I decided to take my sample pack of cigarettes home with me.  As soon as I got home I closed my bedroom door, quickly lit a cigarette, inhaled, and had a coughing fit.  My mother always told me that she had eyes in the back of her head – and I believed her.  So, I ran straight into her bedroom to tell her I tried to smoke a cigarette and had a coughing fit.  She said my body was trying to tell me not to smoke.  I vowed I would never smoke again.

That promise lasted only three years.  The next time I smoked a cigarette was when I was in high school.  My friends would gather in the school parking lot during lunch hour to smoke.  I thought it was cool, so I took a puff of someone’s cigarette.  I didn’t realize it was the beginning of a love/hate relationship with cigarettes that would last the next twenty years.

I loved the ritual of smoking – the process of taking the cigarette out of the package and lighting it seemed so sophisticated.  I kept a lit cigarette in my ashtray at work nonstop.  I couldn’t talk on the phone – or even sip coffee – without lighting up first.

When my son was in high school, he despised when I smoked and would beg me to quit, but I just kept on puffing.

A few years later when smoking finally lost its allure for me, I tried many times to quit –with nicotine patches and even taking a class through my local hospital, but nothing worked.  Until one day.

I’d like to tell you the reason I quit was honorable, but that isn’t true.   I quit because I was in a relationship with a man who wouldn’t live with me unless I quit smoking.  One day at work I experienced a pain in my back and thought it might be related to my smoking, got scared, snuffed my cigarette out in my ashtray and proclaimed out loud “THAT’S IT!”  And it was.

Withdrawal was difficult especially when I was around my triggers such as drinking coffee or alcohol, talking on the phone or being with friends who smoked.  In fact, I cried, screamed and used some four-letter words the first couple weeks. I didn’t know how I would ever be able to have a cup of coffee or a drink without a cigarette.

What happened to the relationship — the main reason I quit smoking?  It didn’t last — but it was a blessing because I believe the Universe brought him into my life just so I would quit smoking.  It’s been over thirty years and I have never looked back – on him or the smoking.  Now when I have coffee or a drink or talk on the phone, it never occurs to me that I need a cigarette.

Did I mention I gained eighty pounds after I quit? And after all these years of trying, I still haven’t lost the weight.  That was the only negative outcome of quitting, but it was still worth it.

They say former smokers are the worst -– and it’s true.  I cannot stand to smell cigarette smoke now and will go to any length to get far away from it.   Not only does the smell nauseate me, but second-hand smoke has proven to be lethal.

The notion that smoking is glamorous or cool is no longer believed.  It’s certainly not glamorous to see friends and family saddled with an oxygen tank wherever they go or die of a lung-related disease.

The only “action” required to quit is simply to throw away your cigarettes and don’t buy anymore. Simple, but true.  Going cold turkey works.  As author Edith Zittler says, “The best way to stop smoking is just to stop – no ifs, ands or butts.”

© 2018 Melodee Currier

Melodee Currier left corporate America in 2008 where she was an intellectual
property paralegal.  Since then she has devoted her time to writing and has
had numerous articles published on a wide variety of topics.   Her articles
can be read on her website www.melodeecurrier.com. Mel is an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told.


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“If I Hunt, I Will Eat”

I’ve been a freelance writer, editor, and graphic designer since the mid 1980s, minus a few short stints on somebody’s payroll that left me eager to get back to my self-directed work-life again. You’d think the income insecurity of this lifestyle might be troublesome, but in fact, satisfying and remunerative work has pretty much always come along just as my project queue needed filling. Early on, I learned the secret–do good work for good people at reasonable prices. They’ll tell others, and the work will flow.

One time, a couple of decades ago, I was doing too much worrying about money and where the next project would come from. I addressed my fear with a period of meditation on animal spirits, leading to identification with the Fox as my spirit animal. (I know, kind of a Doh! for a redhead.)

What did I learn from asking Fox what she had to teach me?

“If you hunt, you will eat.”

It was that simple. Never neglect your marketing. Even at your busiest, respond to that new project query.

Today, when I “hunt” for work, I’m open to a broad range of projects, from 1-shot writing workshops to book-length collaborations. But the work I’d most like to fill my calendar with, in the months ahead, is writing partnerships. That’s what I’m hunting now.

As your writing partner, I serve as a friendly coach, secretary, and editor. I visit your home to talk about your memories and the craft of writing memoir. Between my visits, you practice your new writing hobby.

Each time I visit, I read aloud to you the pages you’ve written since my last visit. Reading the story for the first time, I discover the questions your intended audience will want to ask. As you hear your words in a fresh voice, you discover new insights and ideas. Our conversation sparks new ideas and triggers recall of more memories. By the end of each visit, you’re full of ideas and ready for more writing. We find our way forward, gently and logically, from first drafts to final manuscript.

Here are a few testimonials from past Writing Partner clients. 

Sue and I met at the Goodman South Madison Library “Celebration of Writing,” where I led a mini-session on writing memoir. Later, she found herself with a story to tell–and sought me out.

“Hiring Sarah was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. When I got home from a 4000-mile solo cross-country bucket-list trip pulling a camp trailer through the West, I asked Sarah to coach me as I wrote up my notes. I wanted the encouragement I knew I would get from her, and I wanted help with my writing. Sarah kept me on track. I always looked forward to our sessions, which were both productive and fun. I ended up with something far better than I expected or imagined I was capable of. And as Sarah responded with enthusiasm to my stories, I was able to relive every day of that remarkable trip and experience its magic all over again.”

– Sue R.

Erin and I met when I taught a memoir workshop for Wisconsin Union Mini-courses (now Wheelhouse) in 2011. Two years later, she contacted me to help her capture her memories of a 5-week trip to Morocco with her mother and two small children. On the flight home, her son had accidentally deleted her trip journal from her iPad. (He loved that “poof” files made when they hit the trash icon.) Starting with the clustering technique, we got Erin’s memories back. We began a productive memoir coaching relationship–and a friendship.

“Working with Sarah shifted the trajectory of my life!  Her guiding hand transforms cluttered thoughts into coherent roadmaps that extend beyond writing goals.  Attentive, insightful and supportive make Sarah an indispensable coach.”

– Erin A.

Ellen was referred to me by a mutual friend. Ellen had been on such an astonishing health journey with her husband, everyone told her “you must write a book.” I was happy to help.

“Sarah White is a gifted writer, editor and coach who helped me tame the irascible storm of ideas in my head about how to write my memoir. Her criticisms were gentle but insightful. Her resources were helpful and inspiring. Her story arc lessons helped me break free of fear, deep sadness from parts of my life, and procrastination. I could not have written my story without Sarah’s steady hand.”

– Ellen F.

Would you like to find yourself immersed in a satisfying writing practice, like Sue, Erin, and Ellen did? Get in touch–sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com.

To learn more about my work, visit my website, firstpersonprod.com.

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Red Feather

By Madelon Wise

Roz was laughing so hard, I expected her to snort. I mumbled a little chuckle, trying to be a good sport, but my stomach was churning, and a sad soreness settled in my chest. I could see what was funny about the old black-and-white photo that I showed my friends in the spirit of sharing my story. The photo was quintessentially ’50s, with baggy jeans and choppy haircuts. Also—and this was the part that had Roz in stitches—the whole family was lined up with their backs to the camera.

It was almost more than I could bear to have my friend ridiculing this precious photo. “My brother Mike is not in the photo because he took the picture. He wanted to capture us all at the fireplace,” I attempted to explain. I saw this supposedly hilarious photo as a beloved child’s-eye view of a rare moment of family harmony. Lighting the fireplace at the cabin and watching the fire was a holy family ritual. Further, this picture is one of only six photos I have from my childhood. But Roz didn’t know that, and I wasn’t going to tell her because then I would have to explain where the rest of the family photos went.

The photo showed us gathered in front of a red stone fireplace, the heart of the rustic mountain cabin high up a hill overlooking Red Feather Lake in northern Colorado’s front range. My brother Dave, blonde hair shorn in a buzz cut, was dressed in a white t-shirt and the native Coloradan’s ubiquitous pair of Levis. His torso was erect while he kneeled, seemingly considering the vertically placed hunk of wood leaning against the fireplace. His slightly splayed feet protruded from the big rolled-up cuffs of his jeans. Mom was sitting next to him, her small waist accented by the capped-sleeve cotton shirt tucked into her pedal pushers. The back of her head showed her dark, coarse hair, cut almost as short as a man’s, Mom’s silent rebellion to 1950s mores. At the time of the photo, her sudden death was only four years away.

Next in the lineup was a seated me about 5 years old. My hair was carefully styled, curly, blonde, and growing down my back, which was circled protectively by my father’s arm, graceful fingers extended. Dad’s side view was the only face visible, as he was turned to look at the fireplace. He looked uncharacteristically engaged, his face soft with presence. Still handsome with his curly, dark hair, his slim body was posed with one knee on the oval braided rug and the other knee bent as if he might push off and start running away in his tennis shoes.

“We were always on our best behavior at the cabin,” mused photographer Mike, many decades later. Most likely over a glass or three of wine at my house, Mike and I would spend hours reminiscing and seeking a clue to the mysteries of our childhood. “Nobody ever got drunk. Nobody ever threw anything. Nobody screamed or yelled. It was always good at the cabin.”

A small, one-room log structure with bunk beds built strategically behind and adjacent to the fireplace, the cabin was a place of simple meals and hanging out around a Formica table on aluminum-and-vinyl chairs. Plain broad plank pine floors blended with knotty pine paneled walls. Cold running water from the sink, the cabin’s only amenity, had to be heated for dishwashing. Dad and the boys hauled wood for the fireplace, the only source of heat. With its tiny gas range and equally small antique refrigerator against one wall, the cabin featured French doors that opened out onto boulders where tame chipmunks would scurry and chip. The screenless doors remained open most summer days, allowing sweet, insect-free mountain air to move through the cabin.

Surrounded by twisted, gnarly pine trees, my older brothers and I would spend hours climbing rocks or walking around the lake. I fearlessly climbed huge boulders, enraptured by the scent of pine and woodsmoke, the whisper of wind blowing through pines, and intense, dry sunshine. I had my favorite places to roam, but I could always find my way back to the cabin. We could borrow the neighbors’ rowboat and paddle out onto the deep, cold lake, but I never had an affinity for boats. I felt safest and most at ease climbing those boulders or burrowing under the covers with a book in my favorite top bunk. It was always good at the cabin.

In all the therapy, groups, workshops, intensives, camps, and other expensive enterprises aimed at making me feel better about myself and my upbringing, the leader would inevitably lead us in some kind of meditation that would include “going to our safe place.”

The cabin. The cabin is always my safe place.

© 2018 Madelon Wise

Madelon Wise, a transplant from the Driftless Area, is a gardening grandma riddled with radical biophilia. Writer, editor, permaculturalist, dog mom, musician, and storyteller.


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By Faith Ellestad

You talk about your dirty tricks.  I was stumbling into my dorm late one Saturday night when I felt a tap on my shoulder and saw a finger beckoning me over.

“Past curfew, aren’t you?” asked a cheerful male voice, although it didn’t really strike me as a question. I looked up and recognized Mr. Bell, one of the Drama teachers, standing just inside the door.

“Maybe a little,” I said carefully, trying to sound as though I hadn’t recently imbibed several beers. “Is that a problem?”

This was no idle question. I had just enrolled in my fourth college, the result of a number of flunk-outs and other episodes of non-exemplary behavior in previous halls of learning.  I knew I had few academic options left and couldn’t afford to blow this one. I waited.

“That depends.”

“On what?” I asked warily.

“I won’t report you if you agree to audition for our Spring Play.”

Oh, God! This situation was getting worse by the minute. The Spring Play was the Drama Department ‘s talent showcase, and I had absolutely no desire to be involved. The only acting I’d ever done was trying to talk my way out of trouble.

“But I’m not a drama major, and I haven’t ever been in a play,” I objected.

“Your choice.  I need actors, and you need to not get reported. What do you say?”

I really had no choice. And my head was starting to hurt.

“OK, I’ll do it. When should I be there?”

“Monday evening 6:30 in front of the stage.  I’m counting on you.  See you then.”

“See ya”.

I walked slightly unsteadily up two flights of stairs to my room, relieved that I had dodged a disciplinary bullet.  And since I couldn’t act, Mr. B wouldn’t want me in his play. I would keep my promise, be rejected, my debt would be paid, and I would be off scot-free. I fell into a relieved sleep.

Sunday morning found me at Mass (required), clinging to the pew ahead, suffering from a throbbing hangover –turned-migraine, and consumed by anxious, definitely non-pious thoughts.  What if I embarrassed myself in front of Drama people?  What if he turned me in when I failed my tryout? Worse yet, what if he made me be in the play anyway, just to punish me?  I decided to skip breakfast.  I wasn’t well.  I had been played, so to speak. I blamed myself.

Promptly at 6:30 Monday night I presented myself to the Drama department try-out judges.  The play I was hoping to avoid was nothing I had ever even heard of, a Theater of the Absurd work, The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco. Well, the absurd part was already evident.  All the other students waiting to try out were obviously drama majors with acting experience. Not me.  Except for dressing up as George Washington for the Girl Scout parade, I was experience-free.

Me in my George Washington attire.

The panel of judges assigned me to audition for the part of Mrs. Martin, the wife of Mr. Martin who, I was told, headed up an unusual British family. Someone handed me a script with my lines highlighted in yellow. There certainly seemed to be a lot of them. Voice-quaveringly nervous, I tried hamming it up to emphasize my lack of talent, but to my horror, the judges were amused by my performance and chose me to play Mrs. Martin. It was then I realized the extent of my punishment.  Mrs. Martin was the lead role.

Deanna, the senior Drama major who always auditioned for the lead, and usually got it, shot me a venomous look as she received the supporting role of housekeeper. Was it my fault that I had discovered my inner cockney, and used that accent to read my lines?  I thought it would be cringe-worthy, but unfortunately, Mr. Bell thought I was hilarious. It was Theater of the Absurd, after all, and he let me know that his expectations were high. I would be at every practice, would learn my lines quickly, appear for costume fittings and help backstage.  In other words, I would have no life but theater for the next month.

I had hoped to perform my punishment without mentioning it to my family, but in a most unfortunate coincidence, the head of the Drama Department was friends with a second cousin of my father.  Cousin Kenny often volunteered as an extra in their larger productions, and when he figured out who I was, couldn’t wait to spread the good news to my parents. At least he didn’t know the real reason I was appearing in a play, but now I was being squeezed from two sides.

Mom had loved being involved in college theater, and Dad, a high school English teacher, had moonlighted as a director for their plays. They were thrilled to think that one of their children had inherited the performance gene, and promptly made plans for the trip up to see me perform.

As rehearsals progressed, I began to realize that I was actually quite competent in my role and that Deanna, the Drama Department Diva, who had wanted my part, was jealous and resentful.  She began to criticize my performances, copy my accent, and attempt to upstage me. More than anything, I didn’t want trouble, but she seemed determined to start something.  I resisted as long as I could, until one evening shortly before dress rehearsal was about to begin, she walked up to me and snapped her fingers.

“Cigarette!” she demanded.

“I don’t smoke”, I replied, which was not true and she knew it. She pulled out her own cigarette and waved it at me.

“Light!” she snapped.  My chain had been jerked for the last time. I took out my pack of matches, lit one and dropped it on the floor.

“There you go,” I said, ground it out, and walked away. After that, she left me alone.

The evening of the play, the cast arrived early, wriggled into our costumes, put on our makeup and received final instructions from Mr. Bell who wished us all broken legs. My parents took their seats in the packed auditorium, the lights dimmed and the curtain went up. It was show time.  Everyone did a great job and Deanna was totally professional.  I forgot one line, but adrenaline kicked in and I made something up on the spot so no one noticed the tiny glitch.  We received a standing ovation, and I got a wonderfully complimentary review in the Campus newspaper.

After my triumphant debut, I could tell that my long-suffering parents believed I had finally found myself. That silly talk of a Psychology major could be discounted, and in fact, always had been by Mom, who was suspicious of therapy as just an excuse to complain about your Mother. Drama, on the other hand, could be a great career!

Man, I wished Cousin Kenny had kept his mouth shut. I didn’t want to disappoint Mom and Dad, but the whole thespian experience had just seemed like a chore to me. Once again, I was a weathervane in the wind when it came to choosing a life path.

Lacking any serious goal, I decided I could at least temper parental disappointment by switching from the contentious Psychology major to Elementary Education. My parents, sister and older brother were already teachers; we could be a teaching dynasty. Besides, they would soon discover they did have a dramatic child. It was my younger brother Thomas, King of the Renaissance Fairs.

Thomas performing Celtic Harp music at a Renaissance Fair

© 2018 Faith Ellestad

Faith describes herself as a serial under-achiever, now retired after many years as a hospital scheduling specialist.  When her plan to cultivate a gardening hobby resulted only in hives, she decided to get real and explore her long-time interest in creative writing. She’s so happy she did. Faith and her husband live in Madison, WI with Ivy, their beloved old Belgian Tervuren. They have two grown sons, (also beloved), and a wonderful daughter-in-law.

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“Q Tips”

By Suzy Beal

Let me tell you about my week.  It started early Monday morning at 4:30 am just as my husband was getting up to go to the gym.  He said, “Well, after today’s cleaning of the gas stoves, we will be ready for winter.”

We had completely repainted the exterior of the house, re-stained both decks, painted, and had installed new fascia and gutters. We’d had about twenty trees planted around the house and a new concrete driveway put in.  Robert had remodeled the outside storage and built a small mudroom in the garage.  We were finished and glad to be done with our summer “To Do “list.

The only remaining item on the list was to call the gas company and have them send their maintenance man to clean both gas stoves and make them ready for winter.


James, the stove man, was here. He’d just come in from being on the roof cleaning out the chimney and brushing the soot residue down. He plugged in the vacuum. I was in the laundry room and knew something was wrong when he hollered out, “Oh, no!” I came out to see a large, black cloud hovering over everything.  At first, I didn’t sense what was wrong. Then, as the seconds ticked by, I realized: There was no filter on his vacuum and the soot was pouring out the back into the house.

James quickly pulled the plug, but the damage was done. As he realized the magnitude of his mistake he began to apologize.  I had been peeling and cutting up 22 lbs. of apples to freeze for pies later in the winter. I watched the soot settle on my fresh apples.  Tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden turned dark before my eyes.

I started walking around the kitchen and dining room swiping my finger across surfaces.  They came up black.  What should I do?  How was I going to get everything clean?  James was shaking his head and apologizing.  Finally he said,  “Suzy, I will pay to have all this cleaned up.  Call a cleaning company and see if they can come over right away.”

My mind grasped this idea and I called Merry Maids, but they were too busy and they suggested I call Service Master. I called them and the lady said she would be over at 11:00 am.  It was now 10:15.  James left to get a filter for his vacuum.  I knew then I wouldn’t let him back in the house to do anything, filter or no filter!

I continued walking around the house in a daze.  A Kleenex in my hand, discovering just how fast soot travels when shot out of a vacuum.  I wiped windowsills, papers on my desk, books on the shelves, couch and chairs, my sister’s hand-woven rugs, dishes in the sink–everything was covered in a blanket of black.  I ran to check Robert’s grand piano. Oh please, please–but yes, the white keys were not white and the black keys were blacker.


After the 11:00 o’clock meeting, it was clear that this was going to be a long, expensive cleaning job.  Melissa actually quoted $5,000 to $7,000 for the entire job. How could this be?

James had given her his business card with his license number.  She called her office and they looked up his contractor’s number. He did have a current license, which meant that he did have insurance.

I called my insurance company and they assured me that they would cover the costs if James didn’t file a claim.  Then I remembered we had a $2000 deductible.  This could be the most expensive house cleaning ever!

By 1:00 o’clock there were two cleaning ladies at my house. They started in the kitchen and dining room, which were a direct hit.  As I watched them clean everything with a dry sponge, I began to realize why this was going to take so long

On Tuesday morning they arrived at 8:00 am and around 10:30 I came in from the back deck where I was lodged with my computer.  I found one of the ladies cleaning the bookshelf in the living room. The books on the shelves came out one by one and were wiped. The videos and CDs were treated the same.  All the walls and ceiling were wiped and vacuumed.

She had my little, wooden castles that sit on the shelf in her hand and was cleaning them with Q Tips!  They picked up every little thing on the counters and wiped each down, including the papers strewn around my desk, pencils, pens. The adding machine was cleaned with Q Tips as well.  They used Q Tips to clean the dollhouse furniture in the dollhouse we have for our granddaughter.

On Tuesday morning I got a call from Melissa and she said that she had spoken with James and he had filed a claim with his insurance company.  Thank Goodness!


I had to throw out my apples and all the fruits and vegetables on the kitchen counter.  We ate out that first night because I just couldn’t face the kitchen.  However, as each day passes and they have been cleaning for three days already, I begin to feel as though it will be done soon.  I will have the cleanest house in the county by the time the carpets and blinds have been done.

This is a good thing and I’m beginning to enjoy thinking about it.

© 2018 Suzy Beal

Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com.  

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More on revising your work: Jean Krieg and Sarah White talk writing craft

One of the most important things I learned at my mother’s knee was how to use editing marks.

A few weeks ago I posted a dialogue with Doug Elwell about his approach to revising his writing. Jean Krieg posted a comment that led to this continuation of that conversation.

Sarah: Hi Jean, nice to hear from you! In your comment on my blog, you asked—”Can you provide a rough list of the items you recommend reviewing when editing/revising? That’s such a good question! 

Here’s a quick “download” of my thoughts on editing and revising….starting with the two suggestions I made at the end of the dialogue with Doug.

1. “What’s not here but should be?” is really about clarity. Could a stranger understand this story? If you were a sherpa from Nepal, would my story of detasseling corn in humid Indiana summers make any sense to you?

2. “Remove unnecessary words” is obvious—and leads to a more interesting rhythm in the language, mixing short and long sentences,  instead of allowing the run-ons we tend to write in when doing a first “vomit draft”. I just love playing with rhythm via sentence length. For example, I like to start a paragraph with a short punchy topic sentence, then expand with sentences that grow longer, and finally tying it up with a bow at the end with one short summation or zinger.

3. Focus on characters and their motivations—what they hope for, what are they afraid of, what is their relationship to each other—advocate, adversary, it’s complicated, etc? Are those elements as clearly delineated as possible, and are your words conveying what you intended?

4. Focus on creating setting, sense of place—is it clear where we are, what it looks, smells, sounds like? Could that be heightened to good effect, or would that just be clutter in the story?

5. Action—If I were filming this scene for a movie, what would the camera see? What are the most specific, active verbs that could describe that action? Not “he went” but “he strolled”… “he dashed”… “he meandered…”–without taking it into the territory of cliche, of course.

6. If there isn’t a lot of dashing about (active verbs), then am I creating action through dialogue? Does the dialogue sound natural? Have I been minimalist in my use of “tags”–those “he said”, “she muttered” identifiers? (Tag usage in dialogue is worthy of a whole post right there.)

7. And finally, what I call the “tighten and brighten” — go through and remove unnecessary words (again), and search out passive verbs and make them active. It’s amazing how that alone can make a piece of writing better.

Jean: Your list is spot on. There are a few other things that I look for and correct as needed when I edit:

  1. Cliches/colloquialisms
  2. Replace “this/that/it”
  3. If necessary to have passive sentences, make sure subject is before the verb
  4. Replace “thing(s)”

I also read the piece out loud several times and it never fails to highlight an awkward or redundant word or phrase.

Sarah: I’m so glad you mentioned reading the piece out loud. And your #4, “Replace “thing(s)” really takes me back to my home training. My mother–a professional editor–always chided my brothers and me if we used “thing” or “stuff” in our writing–and even in ordinary speech. “There’s always a more precise word than that,” she’d say. “FIND IT!”

Thanks, Jean, for sharing your tips and moving this conversation forward. Readers, anybody want to chime in with your suggestions and experiences around revising your work?

(c) 2018 Sarah White and Jean Krieg

Jean Krieg has published three books: Girl Scouts Camp Alice ChesterMy First Book of Common Wisconsin Birds, and My First Book of Wisconsin Snakes. Visit her blog at: https://mostlynaturestuff.wordpress.com/

Posted in Guest writer, writing workshop | 1 Comment