Feeling the Words You Write

Writer's Digest Cover, October, 2017We all have heard the admonition to write with passion. What we have not heard nearly enough is to write with empathy. In other words, “feel” the words you write. The focus, then, is on who we are writing about and how to get the reader to be a part of that experience. I learned this lesson several years ago and share it with you now in a story just published in the October, 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine on book stores shelves now. (Page 10.)

This short 600-word story in the “5-Minute Memoir” column has already received a warm response so I have posted it below and will post the online link to the magazine after October 10 when it is available online. In the meantime, my hope is it will help you in your journey to become a better writer.


Feeling the Words You Write

It’s ten o’clock on Tuesday morning. Most people are hard at work trying to earn a living. I’m interviewing Katie, mother of three, who’s doing her best just to keep living. Katie is dying of ovarian cancer. She’s 27. She has three months to live. Three months to agonize over what life might be like if her health care provider had approved appropriate chemotherapy treatment in a timely fashion. Katie’s goal now is to live till tomorrow.

For me, tomorrow is just another day—Wednesday. I’ll be writing a brochure for an architectural firm. On Thursday, I’ll write an ad for a Fortune 500 company. And on Friday, I’ll draft a speech for an executive. I’ve been hired by a local health care facility to write the story explaining how it helped prolong Katie’s life after a competing health care system failed her.

My tape recorder is running and I’m interviewing Katie. As she answers my question, her 4-year old son, David, climbs into my lap and gives me a hug. Suddenly, I don’t feel like the writer. I feel like I’m part of a similar story.

My mind shoots back to a balmy June afternoon in 1965. My father just returned from the hospital. He calls his six children, ages 4 to 14, into his bedroom. “Your mother passed away today,” he says. Panic seizes our hearts. My mother died after a short battle with cancer. She was 45. I was 11.

I feel the eerie irony of David’s childhood colliding with mine. Tears well in my eyes as I know he will soon no longer enjoy the security of his mother’s embrace, the warmth of her touch, the power of her encouragement, even the fragrance of her perfume.

Back at my home office I write a lead for the story.

Cancer. Next to heart disease, it’s the leading cause of death in America. All of us know or love someone who has fallen prey to this impartial killer. If Katie Miller didn’t have to fight her former health care provider for an accurate diagnosis, she might not have to fight cancer today. Now, she’s not only fighting for her health, she’s fighting for time. This is her story.

This lead feels cold. Sterile. Empty. As I replay the interview I sense I’m writing Katie’s story like one of my business articles—with my head. No heart.

I hammer out another lead, then another. Still sterile, unfeeling. Finally, I tap this out:

For Katie Miller, life is short. At 27, she’s just seen her last Christmas, her last wedding anniversary and her final birthday. She knows she will never see Jenny, her 6-year old, finish the first grade. She knows she won’t be there when David, 4, loses his baby teeth. And she grieves knowing Joanna, 3, will never remember her.

Katie is dying of ovarian cancer. She has three months to live. But the real tragedy is it didn’t have to be this way.

I finish the article a few days later and send it to my client so Katie’s story will appear in a local publication.

Writing is a cerebral profession. Yet, to tell Katie’s story, I needed to feel the words I wrote.

Perhaps Hemingway said it best. “A writer’s problem does not change. It’s always how to write truly and having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it.”

I suppose I could’ve learned how to feel the words I write from Hemingway; but Katie taught me first.


Published in: on August 30, 2017 at 10:33 am  Comments (4)  

Writing for Legacy

My father considered himself an ordinary man. But to me, and my five siblings, whom he raised alone following my mother’s premature death, he was nothing short of extraordinary. As a member of what Tom Brokaw christened the “Greatest Generation,” my father, a World War II vet, never talked about himself. So, naturally he wouldn’t approve of me talking about him now–much less writing about him.

But that’s exactly what I’ve been doing since his death from Alzheimer’s disease eight years ago. I’m writing about how this ordinary man etched an indelible mark on, at the very least, his six children and eleven grandchildren. How am I doing it? Well, one way is I’m watching for opportunities in publications that are, in essence, looking for snapshots of the life he lived.

On Sale Now at most booksellers

On sale now at Amazon.com, bn.com and most booksellers

So, for example, when the editors at Chicken Soup for the Soul send me a story call-out for stories about “what makes America great” for a new book entitled, The Spirit of America, I responded with an article about the men and women in our Armed Forces that protected this country in World War II. And, I told my father’s story of service as a U.S. Marine serving in the South Pacific and later stationed in Iwo Jima.

The story is entitled, A Devotion to Duty, and the book was recently published and released nationwide in early June. The book is intended, in part, to commemorate, the 15th Anniversary of 9/11 today. The story focuses on why the men and women of the “Greatest Generation” so willingly volunteered to serve their country at one of the most tumultuous times in our history.

Many of the articles and stories I write these days celebrate the quiet legacy of integrity and devotion my father demonstrated to his country, his wife and his children.

Do you want to write for legacy? Do you have someone you want to honor? Consider checking out the Chicken Soup for the Soul website. There you will learn about new books you can write for, the type of stories the editors are looking for to include in their anthologies and precisely how to submit your stories.

Most importantly, you just might find a home to publish a story you’ve wanted to tell that will not only engage their readers; it will honor the legacy of someone you love.


For a related story, type “resonates” in the search bar at right and click “search.”

Published in: on September 11, 2016 at 7:07 pm  Comments (2)  

Why Writers Never Take a Vacation (But How to Benefit if You Do)

Writer--VacationI’m a writer. I’m on vacation this week. But I can’t take a vacation—because I’m a writer.


The truth is writers rarely take a vacation. That is, a vacation from their writing. Why? Simple. Our mind won’t let us. Sure, we can take time off and escape our 9-to-5 life. We can travel to some exotic location. But, we can’t take time off from writing—or thinking about writing.

We never know when a new idea will strike, the perfect opening line of our article will emerge, or a captivating ending to our book will crystallize and tap us on the shoulder and say, “Hey, write this down.” Our muse is a strange thing. It arrives unannounced. Thus, it never lets us take our vacation alone. It must come along for the ride. My wife has gotten used to this phenomenon. She graciously allows my writing to stowaway with us on most vacations.

“But my vacation is for relaxation, not writing,” you say. “I can’t possibly write productively on my vacation. Besides, writing during my vacation will not be good for me or my writing,” you insist. I beg to differ. With the proper balance of rest and writing, both you and your writing can benefit.

Here are three ways a vacation can improve your writing:

  • Vacations allow you to unplug your 9-to-5 life and set your mind free. Think of your vacation as a brief sabbatical. It’s a time to rest, relax and yes, write. But in that order. When you relax you not only set your mind free to think clearly, you allow it to think differently—to explore different story angles and points of view. And a vacation refreshes your thinking because you are free from the deadlines that typically constrain you. Most importantly, on vacation, you can write at the time of day when you have the most energy, creativity and inspiration.
  • Vacations allow you to change environments to invigorate your writing. There is nothing like a new environment to fuel your creativity. I’m writing this blog outside on my patio overlooking a striking tree-line, wetlands and a pond. (Sure beats an office.) I once vacationed in Monterey, California, near Cannery Row, the setting for the 1945 novel of the same name by author, John Steinbeck. Talk about getting in the mood to write. Vacations allow you to change locations, climates, venues, and scenery which elevate your mood, energy and your writing.
  • Vacations (especially staycations) boost productivity by naturally putting you in a “start & finish” mode. This week on my staycation, I will be starting and finishing several tasks: cut the lawn, change the oil in the car, clean the garage, repair a bike tire, etc. How does my writing benefit? These small tasks thrust me in a mode (and mood) to start and finish projects. I will exploit this momentum to get some writing projects started and finished during my vacation.

So, I guess it’s true.  Writers never really take a vacation because even if they’re not writing—they’re thinking about writing.


Published in: on July 4, 2016 at 11:24 am  Leave a Comment  

What are you writing for?

Walt DisneyWhat’s the most important thing to remember as a writer? From where I sit (and write), two things. I never want to forget why I’m writing and who I writing for. It’s easy to forget these two things if you’re preoccupied with publication or you’re enjoying so much success that you forget what got you there. Thankfully, there is enough rejection in this business to keep us grounded, focused, and consequently, writing.

Yet, I love the advice Walt Disney and F. Scott Fitzgerald bring to the essence of storytelling despite their immense success. Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, said, “You don’t write because you want to say something…you write because you have to say something.” This speaks of the innate compulsion all writers feel to express themselves and why we must write—or burst.

Walt Disney also never lost sight of his reason for being, “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money so we can make more movies.” In other words, it’s about “the work,” the craft, the story, and the audience entertained, changed or moved by that story. Writing is about the “process,” not merely the end.

Writing. It’s hard work. Painstaking work. And yes, often painful work. Yet, it’s also there’s-nothing-I’d-rather-be-doing work, despite often delayed rewards. We persevere because we know every master began as an apprentice and good writing is nothing more than good rewriting.

Never lose sight of why you write and who you are writing for. Besides, there’s a fringe benefit to doing the work; the desire to write grows with writing.

Keep writing.


For more on this subject, type “process” in the search box at right.

Published in: on April 24, 2016 at 7:28 am  Comments (1)  

How to Give Your Writing Routine a Creative Boost

Book Cover of Austin Kleon's New York Times Bestseller

Book Cover of Austin Kleon’s New York Times Bestseller

Welcome to The Writer’s Refuge. Thanks for visiting or revisiting. If you’re new to this blog, take a look around. If you click on “Why Writers Read This Blog” at right, you’ll discover that it is designed to encourage writers to chase their dreams no matter where you are on your path to publication.

Here you will find advice, encouragement, pithy quotes, ideas, and tips from other published writers. And so, I often recommend books that have profoundly influenced me and taken both my writing, and my writing routine, up a notch. Most importantly, I recommend books that I trust will influence you and your work. For example, I just read Austin Kleon’s New York Times Bestseller Steal Like An Artist, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. Great book! Very inspirational. Powerfully motivating. And refreshingly different from anything out there.

Why is it different? Kleon bills himself as, “a writer that draws.” Thus, his books are quick reads that are chock full of his creative line drawings that brilliantly illustrate his main points. What about his writing? Crisp, clean, creative and poignant. I finished reading this book in less than two hours, pondered his suggestions for a week, read it again, and then took copious notes in my journal so I could infuse his ideas into my writing routine.

The premise of the book is simple:  all great artists essentially steal ideas from each other, hitchhike on those ideas, expand them, and then turn them into something better. Something unique. Something their own. Kleon recommends studying one artist or writer you really love, and then learn everything you can about them and their influences. Kleon says, “The great thing about dead or remote masters is that they can’t refuse you as an apprentice. You can learn whatever you want from them. They left their lesson plans in their work.”

 Steal Like An Artist is packed with great gems to chew on—and keep chewing on. I’ll leave you with just one thought vital to me as I battle for more writing time daily since my day job devours the clock.

Kleon says, “The worst thing a day job does is take time away from you, but it makes up for that by giving you a daily routine in which you can schedule a regular time for your creative pursuits. Establishing and keeping a routine can be even more important than having a lot of time.”

 So true. This helped change my perspective and I put this thought to work by writing with a vengeance every Saturday morning from nine till noon at my local Barnes & Noble bookstore café. As a result, I have cranked out more articles, began revising an old novel, advanced a new novel, and mapped out where I want to take my writing career in 2016 and 2017. This is crucial time for me because it is a scheduled routine for my creative pursuits.

So, need a quick shot of inspiration? Want to feel like the artist you are? Pick up Austin Kleon’s easy read, Steal Like An Artist or visit his website (www.austinkleon.com) and subscribe to his free weekly newsletter on creativity. It’s working for me, maybe it will help you too.

Keep writing.

(For another blog post on the subject of finding more time to write, type “Darkness” in the search box at right.)


Published in: on April 10, 2016 at 8:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

Finding Inspiration in Your Own Words

My Parents, 1948 A Short Marriage. Six Children. Enviable Love.

My Parents, 1948
A Short Marriage. Six Children. Enviable Love.

Do you have a novel inside you? Is it screaming to get out? Are you desperate to share it with the world?

I have a novel rattling around in my head, actually more than one, but one in particular. This novel has been taunting me to write it for at least five years. The problem is, as it always is, to carve out enough time to write it and do it justice. Allow me to share it with you.

The story theme: “Love after loss.” The story premise: If you lose your spouse prematurely (and you had a great marriage) can you ever love again? In the same way? With the same depth? How do you fill that emotional Black Hole? What would you unknowingly compromise? What would you always hold in reserve for your first love? And if or when you dare to love again how do you avoid the comparison trap or the guilt trap? The working title: “To Love Again.” The opening lines: Is anyone ever the same after they lose someone they love? I mean, really the same.

This will be a work of fiction although it parallels my father’s life. He lost his wife, my mother, prematurely and he raised six young children alone. In his case, he never gave himself permission to “love again.” I want to delve into this deep emotional struggle after a debilitating loss.

Why am I sharing this with you?

Well, because as writers, we’re always looking for inspiration. And while we often find it in others or in their work, sometimes we find inspiration in ourselves—in our lives—and in our words. For example, I have been writing this novel in my head for years, yet I don’t have much on paper. Yesterday, while I was writing in my journal I was struck with a thought that crystalized why I must write this story. Here are the words that came to me:

“My father loved my mother with his whole heart, lost her to cancer, raised six children alone, and for 40 years not a day went by that he didn’t think of her. That deserves a book! And I’m going to write it.”

After I recorded these words in my journal, I read and them over and over again. And while they are not a revelation to me, they inspire me because they speak to the intense sentiment that resides in my soul. My point? Sometimes inspiration strikes not from the outside, but from the inside. Inspiration often comes not as a lightning bolt, but as a shaft of light that gently shines on a singular area of our life that deserves more light, more insight, more reflection or introspection.

And this light can uncover or rediscover a rich life lesson. Yes, we can draw inspiration for our writing from many sources, but sometimes we find inspiration in our own words. So, don’t forget to look within.

What have you written that inspires you to keep writing?

Published in: on March 30, 2016 at 9:02 pm  Comments (2)  

What is Your Writing ROI?

bigstock-Laptop-with-crumpled-paper-bl-36467365-704x400I work in the business world in my day job. Advertising to be exact. As a senior marketing communications manager I create advertising concepts, write ads and develop the creative communications to sell our products. Success in any business is measured by ROI (return on investment). Profits must exceed your investment or you cut your losses and move on.

This got me thinking about how we measure our success as writers. Is publication the only worthy return on investment? Is making a buck all there is?

Several years ago, I spent a year writing my first novel and two more trying to land an agent. There was bad news. I never landed an agent but I came incredibly close on my first effort. And there was good news. While I experienced plenty of rejection, several agents took the time to comment on the strength of my book, recommend changes, and encourage me to keep writing.

Yet, despite their encouragement, at the end of the day, my novel never saw the light of day and found a home on just one bookshelf—mine. After investing three years of my life on this project I concluded it was not exactly a good return on investment.

It took a good friend to add clarity. “You write your first book to learn how to write a book,” Dave said. “You write your second and third books for publication.” Still, I lamented my three years of “lost time.” His response altered my attitude forever. “Jim, you didn’t waste your time. In fact, did you ever consider that if you had invested those three years doing anything else that would’ve been a waste of time?” He was right. This investment changed me and prepared me for my next project.

When I write, I get in a zone. I get lost in a project and develop a sense of peace that tells me I’m where I’m supposed to be. New York Times Bestselling Christian author, Max Lucado, in his book Cure for the Common Life, refers to this as finding your “sweet spot.” He says your sweet spot is “a zone, a region, a life precinct in which you were made to dwell. And life makes sweet sense when you find it.”

Another writer put it this way, “Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing anything else.”
This is how I feel about my writing now. No matter how much time I invest in it, and regardless of my return on investment (published or not), I don’t feel I should have invested my time doing something else.

When you write, do you feel you are doing precisely what you were meant to do? Do you feel that if you were doing anything else you just might be wasting your time? If so, then you’ve just redefined your writing ROI. Because when you do what you love doing, success ultimately follows.


Published in: on March 17, 2016 at 8:20 pm  Comments (1)  

What Writers Can Learn From Harper Lee

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdThe world lost a great storyteller last week. Harper Lee, author of the bestselling novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird” died on Friday, February 19, 2016. She was known as much for her quiet, humble and elusive nature as her compelling novel about racial injustice in a small fictional Southern town.

She crafted this classic work in the 1950s and it was published in 1960. “Mockingbird” quickly became a bestseller, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and a memorable movie in 1962 for which Gregory Peck won an Academy Award. After the immense success of “Mockingbird,” Lee did something unusual. She never wrote a book again. Sure, “Go Set a Watchman” was released last year to much acclaim but it was originally written as a first draft of “Mockingbird.”

What can we, as writers, learn from this immensely successful but uncommonly reluctant writer?

1) Write for the right reasons. Harper Lee followed her convictions, wrote with a sense of purpose and produced a book for the ages that challenged the American conscious and became standard reading for millions of high schoolers. Her message was for the heart and soul. She wrote about something she wanted us all to feel and think about. Success was optional.

Harper Lee2) Say what you intend to say. Then move on. When asked why she stopped writing at the pinnacle of her career she said, “Two reasons. One, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with “To Kill a Mockingbird” for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.” Enough said.

3) If fame finds you, don’t let it change you. Newspaper reports last week confirmed that friends and townsfolk in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama said, “She was a warm, vibrant and witty woman who enjoyed life, played golf, read voraciously and got about to plays and concerts.” She never let fame grip her—or change her.

4) Remain true to yourself. Harper Lee lived her life her way. She protected her life by protecting her privacy. Meanwhile, she gave the world something to cherish—and something to chew on.

Last year, I felt compelled to read “Go Set a Watchman.” Then, I immediately reread “Mockingbird.” My goal was to revisit her creative writing style, her memorable characters, the carefully crafted dialogue, southern setting, and the captivating narrative. And something more. I wanted to retrace the steps of a fictional hero in Atticus Finch, as well as a literary hero, in 88-year old Harper Lee. It was a journey worth taking.

Austin Kleon, (www.austinkleon.com) an accomplished young writer and artist made a great point when he said, “Great artists left their lesson plans in their work.” It’s true. In Harper Lee’s case, she not only left great lesson plans in her work—she left them in her life.

Farewell Nelle Harper Lee. You used your 15 minutes well.


Published in: on February 28, 2016 at 1:54 pm  Comments (4)  

Write What Resonates With You

Walking on Water Book CoverWhen you read, what resonates with you? I mean, what really speaks to your heart, challenges your thinking, deepens your convictions, or moves you? What makes you say, “I wish I wrote that?” These are things that you can write about since they reside deep within your soul and will connect with others.

Last week when I was browsing in a Barnes & Noble store I stumbled across a book that seized my attention. The book cover gripped me first. The cover featured a wood-plank bridge that led to a sandy beach and an ocean-front in Key West. I could almost feel the moist, balmy sea air and the gentle salt spray. Then, page one refused to let me go.

After reading the first page I bought the book, Walking on Water, the fifth in The Walk series by Richard Paul Evans. Over the next few days I also bought the first and second books in the series, The Walk and Miles to Go. (www.richardpaulevans.com)

Why did this book grip me so tight in the opening paragraphs? It resonated with me by unknowingly speaking to me about my life!

Let me explain by sharing with you a few opening paragraphs:

When I was eight years old, three days after my mother’s funeral, my father found me curled up on the floor of my bedroom closet.

“What are you doing in there?” he asked.
I sat up, wiping the tears from my face. “Nothing.”
“Are you okay?”
My father, who was never comfortable with outward displays of emotion had no idea what to do with a crying boy. “All right then,” he finally said, rubbing his chin. “Let me know if you need something.”
“Why did she have to die?”
My father looked at me pensively, then took a deep breath. “I don’t know. We all die sometime. It’s just the way it is.”
“Is she in heaven?”

Now, notice how closely my life parallels the narrative above. I was eleven when my mother died of cancer. When my father informed his six young children of this news one Sunday afternoon, my six-year old brother, Bob, curled up and laid under his bed until dark. The rest of us sought my father’s comfort and that of my aunt and uncle who had accompanied him.

My father wasn’t comfortable with crying girls, much less crying boys. He had three of each that dreadful afternoon. When we asked him why Mom had to die his response was identical to the father’s response in the book, “It’s just the way it is,” he said. And the six of us too all wondered if we would see her again in heaven.

This opening scene so resonated with me that I had to see where the author would take me.  And I feel compelled to write about my experience of losing a parent early in life so I can help others who have suffered through a similar situation. I can do this in both fiction and non-fiction forms.

What unique experiences have you had that will resonate with readers? How can your life touch others? What have you learned that you can teach, encourage or inspire someone else?

Use your gift of writing to tell the world how you made it through and how they can too! Remember, what resonates with you will speak to other hearts too.


You can learn more about this five-book series at: www.richardpaulevans.com.

Published in: on February 14, 2016 at 5:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Will Your Writing Outlive Your Life?

outlive-your-lifeMy favorite author is Max Lucado. He is a New York Times best-selling author with over 70 books to his credit for the inspirational market. A few years ago, he wrote another life-changing book entitled, Outlive your Life. Just how do you outlive your life? The answer may be suggested in the book’s subtitle: You Were Made To Make A Difference.

The premise of this energizing book can be summarized with a question. Are you living your life with such positive impact that even after you die your life will influence others? It’s a sobering, yet, motivational concept. It got me thinking about you and me as writers. For example, you could ask yourself a similar question. Will your writing outlive your life?

In other words, is there anything you can possibly write today that is powerful enough, penetrating enough, to influence others tomorrow, the day after that, and years from now?

One of my favorite quotes on the power of the written word is by Scotland born, Gilbert Highet, a mid 20th century teacher of humanities in the United States. He revered authors and books as depicted in his sentiments below:

These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves. From each of them goes out its own voice…and just as the touch of a button on your set will fill the room with music, so by taking down one of these volumes and opening it, one can call into range the voice of a man far distant in time and space, and hear him speaking to us, mind to mind, heart to heart.

Stephen King, in his book, On Writing, referred to this concept as a kind of telepathy. He used his own book as an example. He referred to the words he was writing in the book in 1997 and how they would speak to readers in the future. Those readers, at least one of them, was me. I read his book in 2015, just a few months ago, and his words struck me with the same impact he intended when he penned them 18 years ago. I felt like he was speaking to me in the present. It was like Highet’s words. I felt like I called “into range the voice of a man far distant in time and space [to] hear him speaking to [me] mind to mind, heart to heart.”

Will your writing outlive your life? The truth is you may never know if the words you craft today will engage the hearts and minds of others in the future.

But isn’t that one more reason to write them?


For more on this topic in this blog, type “Why the World Needs Writers” in the search bar at right.

Published in: on July 12, 2015 at 3:38 pm  Leave a Comment