Write Word Archive

| Big Deal! | A Line on a Postcard | Barrier Line | Understand Why | Tell Me About the Wood Yard | Who Went to Law School |
| Pushing the Muse | Nothing to Hide | Is He a Legend? | Fill in the Blanks | Coincidence | Deep Dive | America at Its Best |
| Embellishment | Bake Sales | Release Form | Bake Sales - Scene 1, Take 2 | Slumped in Their Seats | I Was Wrong | Left Alone |
| Brain Change | A Child's Mind | How It Ends | How It Ends, part 2 | Tired Mother, Tired Writer? | Heart to Heart | Vienna Woods |
| More Sleep Talk | The Same Scent | Oatmeal 1935 | Waiting... | Back from Rome | Author in Love | Viewpoint | Return Visit |
| Refreshing | The List | More Information | Untapped Talent | Read It | Disconnect | Teacher | Books and Authors | Interruptions |
| Invitations | Writer to Writer | Not Ashamed | Still Not Ashamed | Red and Green | Back of the Quilt |

| A Six Year Old with a Notebook | The Inkwell | Pictures in My Head | More About Those Pictures | Seeing My Grandfather |
| The Child Within Me | A Slice of Life | Remembering Robert Hayden | Four Words from Jane Eyre | The Timeless Zone |
| Lines of Time | After So Many Years | Seeing the Story |
I See What I See | A Writer's Lines | The Milky Green Stained Glass Window |
| Walking on My History | Truth through Fiction | That Hurts | A Major Intersection | Clarinet or Sax? |


December 20, 2009

“Back of the Quilt”

About a decade ago, I was visiting the quilt exhibition at the annual Michigan State Fair. Now let me preface what I am about to say by explaining that as a rule, a piece of needlework should look as well-executed on the back as it does on the front. So I was quite taken aback when I heard one of the quilt judges express exasperation as to why people kept looking at the back of the quilts.

She should have known all too well what I have come to know—that quilt-lovers want to appreciate the piece as a whole. They understand that the thread visible on the stylized front has a parallel, more practical, purpose when it also appears on the back: securing the batting between the two pieces of fabric. So they want to see if the functional part of the quilt is just as pleasing to the eye as the decorative side.

I equate these Write Word Journal entries as the equivalent of looking at the back of the quilt. I make the assumption that anyone reading these pages either has read one or more of my books or wants help in making that decision. This journal has exposed the practical, functional part of the book—me, the writer. I am the thread that holds it all together.

So my hope is that looking at the back of the quilt—reading about my journey, life, influences, and thoughts as a writer—has been as entertaining, compelling, challenging, and rewarding as reading one of my books.

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December 13, 2009

“Red and Green”

A recent brunch guest was enjoying the apples I had sliced and served with the meal. Jonathan, I said. One of a variety of red apples. I then went on to list my favorite red apples, describing which ones were known as “eating” apples and which were primarily for cooking. I brought three types of red apples out the refrigerator—Jonathan, Northern Spy, and Cameo.

My guest’s mouth dropped open. “I never realized there were so many varieties,” she said. “I just thought apples were either red or green.”

It hit me. I select apples the same way I select the language in a narrative and scenes in a plot. Just as I seek out and savor gradations in red apples—some for eating, some for cooking, some crisp, some tart—I choose words for the way they evoke taste, emotion, humor, suspense. I cannot imagine apples relegated to being either red or green. Apples—and language—offer so much more.

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December 6, 2009

“Still Not Ashamed”

Another question to me from the same group of extraordinary young readers I described in my November 29 post—Did you ever see a donkey saw?

When I heard this question, I realized immediately that this youngster was asking a two-tier query. However, I only answered the question of the first tier—no I have never actually seen a donkey saw. In fact, the closest I have come to seeing one was the sketch rendered by my mother, based upon a rudimentary drawing made by my uncle toward the end of his life. (The sketch was included in chapter two of my book, Who’s Jim Hines?, the same chapter in which the saw is first mentioned.)

I chose not to address the second and more profound question addressed to me, which was in essence—how does the imagination work? How do writers take their readers where they themselves have never been?

But now I’ll answer: It is an expanded sense of reality. Even if I have never directly experienced something, I can live it and view it—in my mind—to such an extent that I possess it as my own. That is a powerful claim, I know. But that is my imagination at work.

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November 29, 2009

“Not Ashamed”

I was the guest author for a young readers book club, my first invitation for such a group. The founder—the mother of one of the members—thanked me for “taking a chance and braving a group of nine- and ten-year-olds.”

My pleasure. Their questions after the presentation were superb. They dug deep. I could tell that they were readers and they were not ashamed of the fact.

Question—What was I looking for when I interviewed my uncle, Doug, Jr.?

Answer—I interviewed my uncle at our bi-annual family reunions. I asked the same questions each time, but I was looking for a different slant to his answers. I wanted new memories, added details that would enhance the narrative and make the story come alive. Stacking cords of wood in the wheelbarrow, starting the fire in the kitchen stove in the morning, making toys from scraps of wood, keeping his distance from the donkey saw as his father worked: that’s what I was looking for each time I interviewed my uncle.

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November 22, 2009

“Writer to Writer ”

Recently, I had lunch with a very dear friend who is also a writer. We meet for lunch every few months. We keep up with one another a bit through email and websites, but not enough where we don’t have plenty to talk about when we meet. The exact nature of our conversation? I won’t go there.

But I will say that our conversations quickly get to a point where the connection is not between two moms, wives, professional women, or even women of faith. The connection is between two writers.

And yes there’s a difference there.

Perhaps it’s because we’re used to framing situations and working out endings. Maybe it’s because we develop characterizations and work them into settings that sometimes seem to be not completely of our own choosing. Or it could be because we’re acutely aware that certain moments in life awake our muse and become the impetus for a book or an essay or a story that will consume our creative lives.

I won’t go on. Except to say that when we meet over lunch, it’s with the knowledge that some talk and some connections can only be had writer to writer.

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November 15, 2009


Over the last few weeks, I have received several invitations to speak on my most recent book Who’s Jim Hines? at various libraries and schools across the state of Michigan. So far I have been able to accommodate all of them on my schedule. I have mentioned previously in this journal and I will say again—connecting with my readers is essential to nourishing my creative spirit.

As I prepare each presentation, I re-read certain portions of Who’s Jim Hines?. Here, my understanding of my own writing changes each time. I am not the same person now that I was at the time of writing the manuscript. But not only that, current events have changed. The times in which we live continually change. Even something as mundane as the change in season can affect what I will say and how I will say it.

So there it is. I crave these presentations as much as those who have invited me. They force me to re-examine my writing. They help me to understand what I have written in the context of those who are reading it now.

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November 8, 2009


At another “books and authors” event in an adjacent county, I reconnected with a children’s picture book author with whom I share some similar social/political views. While chatting, she mentioned that her participation in related grassroots activities during the past year caused her to put aside a writing project that she is only now revisiting.

That comment led me to consider this—how do we as authors select what keeps us away from our writing? What interruptions are valid and actually nurture the creative spirit and which ones are just lame excuses?

I have experienced certain life-events that have rendered me utterly incapable of participating in the writing process. I viewed them as soul-shaping and essential to my development as a writer and as a human being.

Yet what are legitimate interruptions to the muse that drives us and what are not? I’m curious about this one—what say you?

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November 1, 2009

“Books and Authors”

I took part in an unusual “books and authors” event several days ago. It was unusual not only by the fact that it was coordinated by the owner of a home furnishings store, but it was held right there at the store as well. And while the email updates from the owner indicated that the event would in all probability be well-attended and attract a comfortable crowd, I was still skeptical that visitors to a furniture store would embrace a bevy of authors nestled among the dining tables and sofa settings.

I was wrong.

The store was packed with a steady stream of customers who also turned out to be voracious readers. And while we authors were encouraged to invite our friends and family, it appeared that most of the people strolling the aisles were patrons of the store and that alone.

So what’s the point here? Only to say that I had a great time meeting and greeting people to whom I had no connection other than a shared love for books, learning, adventure, mystery, cultural awareness, family, history, and yes beautiful home furnishings.

I did sell a lot of books. But more than that, I connected with the very people who motivate me to imagine a story and create those books.

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October 25, 2009


I was on the way to visiting my mother’s oldest sister. Driving down the street, I thought of my middle school English teacher, the one who introduced me to journaling and who—by that action—I credit with helping to awaken the introspective part of my writer’s psyche. I meant to ask my aunt if she had heard anything about this woman, her neighbor. Basically, I was curious to know about her—is she alive or dead? Should I try to visit her after so many years have passed?

I thought about that teacher again today.

I participated in an author event today that included over thirty authors from a wide range of genres. The writer assigned to the space adjacent to mine had written and illustrated a picture book. But even more noteworthy was the fact that a friend of mine—who attended the book fair with his family—was her directed study instructor during which time she first began working on her illustrations for the book. She was thrilled to connect with him once again. She obviously felt that he had supported her initial work.

And that’s when I thought about that teacher once again and wondered—is she alive or dead?

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October 18, 2009


I have two hair stylists now. (I’ve changed my look somewhat. But that’s for another journal entry!) When I met my latest stylist, one month ago, she described her grandson as she worked on my hair—he’s very bright, he plays soccer, he attends a language immersion school.

From her words, I imagined a youngster around ten years old. Definitely old enough to read my most recent book, Who’s Jim Hines?

At my next appointment, I presented her with a copy to give to her grandson. She was thrilled to receive it. But come to find out, he’s only six. Hmmm…I suggested that perhaps she read it with him.

The age disconnect—a result of her description or my imagination? It’s certainly a dilemma of writers, fiction writers in particular. We want to write tight descriptions, yet leave enough leeway for the reader’s imagination to personalize the reading experience. The goal is to guard against that disconnect.

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October 11, 2009

“Read It”

I watched a film a few nights ago—“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” It was a very fine film with a strong plot, excellent acting, and all the rest. But what was unusual for me about the experience was that while viewing the movie I did something I’d never done before. During several scenes, I recreated the action as I supposed it would appear in a book.

I imagined how I would describe the boy running through the woods to meet his friend who lived on a “farm” enclosed in barbed wire. I expanded the dialogue between the boy and the kindly potato peeler who expertly wrapped the child’s wound. I considered what words I might use to describe the escalating tension between the boy’s mother and father after the mother realized the source of the stench in the smoked-filled sky.

When the credits rolled, I saw that the movie was based upon a book. And it all made sense--because some stories, rather than created as a visual experience, are just naturally a better read.

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October 4, 2009

“Untapped Talent”

I led a memoir writing workshop the other day. The participants were part of a writers group composed of teachers. They made up a wide range of educators—some taught elementary grades, while others worked at the university level; some taught first grade and others offered college composition courses. But in addition to teaching, the other thing they held in common was a love of writing.

All of my workshops consist of a great deal of writing. Generally the quality levels of even those who aspire to write professionally is quite average. Rarely does anyone’s writing stand out as exceptional.

That’s why I was literally blown away by the work produced by these teacher/writers. As they shared the short assignments I required during the session, I was astounded by the quality of creativity and literary execution.

Even now, as I think back on that class, I find it hard to believe that there exists in our midst such an abundance of untapped talent.

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September 27, 2009

“More Information”

I begin every presentation before a school or library group with a pitch for libraries. “I love libraries,” I tell these groups. I have a passion for libraries.

I explain that when immigrants from less prosperous nations arrive in the United States, they flock to our libraries to learn the language and culture. They are amazed that such vast repositories of learning are…free. I encourage the students before me to appreciate and use their school and public libraries.

Why do I do that? Because I spend quite a bit of time in libraries, not only giving readings but researching topics for my work as well as seeking out books for my personal reading. The buildings are rarely crowded. The children’s sections are underused. It is my mission to do all that I can to change that.

Then an article in the September 25, 2009 edition of The New York Times grabbed my attention—South African school children in Cape Town march to city hall. They want “more information and knowledge.” They want libraries and librarians.

Now, I cannot bring those children to our country so that they can finally have what they so desperately want. But I am more determined than ever to continue my mission to promote the value of libraries to our youth here at home.

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September 20, 2009

“The List”

I am preparing to teach a six-week memoir writing course for a local, private art and design university. The last time I taught the course, some students asked that I provide a list of memoirs as suggested reading. I resisted the request. For whatever reason, I didn’t feel comfortable culling my memory for the best of the “my story” books.

This time, I anticipated the request and visited my bookshelves. If I can share it with my students, I can share it with you. I will revisit some of the books on this list. But for now, take a look at what are bound to be both familiar and unfamiliar titles—

Jean Alicia Elster’s List of Favorite Memoirs—

Dance to the Piper by Agnes DeMille

The Heart of a Woman by Maya Angelou

October Sky by Homer Hickman, Jr.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

The Bone Woman by Clea Koff

Time Traveler by Dr. Ronald Mallett

How to Break a Terrorist by Matthew Alexander

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

The Warden Wore Pink by Tekla Dennison Miller

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September 13, 2009


A few days ago my husband and I were the dinner guests of a young married couple. The wife was a mental health professional but she also said that she was a writer. Now, I’ve heard that claim before, especially from someone who wants to know the fine points of finding an agent or publisher and getting into print. Usually, however, I’m disappointed to find out that the person has not put any thoughts to paper. In their mind they are a writer, but in reality they just have an active imagination.

This time was different. My hostess actually had completed a manuscript. And as we engaged in conversation about her work, it became very clear that she had gone through some soul searching and expended some sweat equity in writing her book.

I found it very refreshing to be in the presence of am untried creative person who not only has a story to tell but who has embraced the first steps that are necessary to get the story told.

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September 6, 2009

“Return Visit”

Yesterday, my husband and I made a long overdue visit to the Nichols Arboretum—the “arb”—in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It’s a wonderful open green space with woods, prairie, grassy fields, trails, and a lovely bank by the Huron River. We used to visit several times a year when our family was younger. But when we couldn’t recognize or easily find some of our favorite trails and fields, we counted the years and realized that it had been over four years since our last visit.

The whole place seemed different: There were wood plank steps over some of the main trails. Gravel covered, widened paths replaced what had been narrow passageways. For ecological reasons, the prairie was being revived by annual controlled “burns.” And the riverbank was now fenced off—the only access to the water was via one strategically placed series of wooden steps.

Now all of these changes—though unsettling—are for the good. I expect the “arb” will be there for the enjoyment of generations more to come.

But what this return visit to the familiar showed me was that places that exist only in memory—probably no longer exist.

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August 30, 2009


Recently, I attended an art exhibition at the College for Creative Studies Center Galleries entitled “The Cyndy Anderson Chronicles: one model, endless expression.” The premise of the project was that several artists would paint/draw the model from varying angles. These viewpoints were on display that night.

I was taken by the ability of so many gifted artists to see Cyndy Anderson as not only the same person but portrayed as totally unique according to their talent and vision. There were thirty-eight paintings in all with titles such as “Impression of Cyndy,” “Charcoal of Cyndy,” “Cyndy in the Sun,” “Cyndy Unplanned.” She was in each one yet—because of the nature of the project—it was more obvious than usual how much the spirit of the artist transformed the portrayal of the subject. I wondered how that would play out in a literary sense.

I got a taste of my answer.

My son, Isaac Elster, created a book trailer for my novel Who’s Jim Hines? (see it on my homepage www.jeanaliciaelster.com ). Now, I as the author have framed a summary of the plot as a coming of age story about a twelve-year-old boy coming to terms with the racial realities of 1935 Detroit. As the videographer, Isaac summarized the story as a mystery, the young protagonist trying to solve a family secret.

Two creative people, two takes—the same story.

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August 23, 2009

“Author in Love”

Because the trip to Rome w/ hubby was in celebration of an anniversary, of course I was expecting romance. But I didn’t expect to fall in love again.

Not talking about hubby—still love him, always will.

What I wasn’t expecting and what did happen was that I fell head over heels in love with...mosaics. Go figure. Perhaps it’s because they are present at literally every turn in and around Rome—basilicas, museums, cloisters, even the ruins of Pompeii. They’re on floors, they’re on ceilings, on columns, on walls. I walked on them, touched them, peered at them, photographed them.

And in no time at all I had become giddily enthralled by all of those mosaics.

This love for mosaics did not emerge out of nowhere. I’ve always appreciated those time tiles, sometimes gazing at examples around town such as the beautiful mosaic mural on the west entrance of the Detroit Public Library’s Main Branch. But while in Rome I began to see them as an altogether singular and splendid art form—solid, often colorful, vivid even when black and white, three-dimensional but smooth. There’s a complex melding of the senses. There’s permanence.

For me, it’s love.

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August 16, 2009

“Back from Rome”

I recently returned from a trip to Rome, Italy. My husband and I celebrated a milestone wedding anniversary by visiting that ancient city. Before we left on the two-week adventure, a friend counseled that I would return with a different attitude toward my writing. Hmmm.

Now in the scheme of things two weeks is not a long period of time. And it would be laughable if after two-weeks in a new locale I would try to call myself an expatriate writer.

But it was definitely long enough that I lost contact with major national news stories, the outcome of a local election, family updates, and neighborhood chatter.

It was long enough that when I returned I felt a little unsettled. I was out of the loop; I needed to catch up with life as I left it. And that off-kilter feeling could quite possibly affect my writing. Nothing long-term, I’m sure, but just long enough to make me step back and remember what I was writing before I left for Rome and what exactly I was trying to say.

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August 2, 2009


In my July 19, 2009 Write Word Journal entry, I remarked how I was pleased that writer/colleagues of mine remembered my work in progress.

I want to continue that train of thought and say that there are works in progress by other writers that I recall, think about, want to know the status of. I learned about these works at my residencies at the Ragdale Foundation. At Detroit Working Writers Christmas potluck celebrations. At Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators-Michigan chapter fall and spring conferences. Even New Year’s Day dinner parties.

Anywhere writers gather and talk, I pick up snippets of plots and progressions. I am drawn into their work. I am anxious to know where things stand—I want to read the finished product.

I am convinced of the fact that this special comaraderie among writers is one of the many reasons that we are compelled to finish what we do and see these things to the end.

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July 27, 2009

“Oatmeal 1935”

Here’s a first—I will have a recipe included in a cookbook. The Michigan Reading Association is compiling this collection of recipes from Michigan authors. It will be distributed at the International Reading Association’s regional conference in October 2009.

My recipe? Oatmeal. Oatmeal? (To quote my mother.) Yes, they eat quite a bit of it in my book Who’s Jim Hines?, so it seemed fitting to include it in a cookbook compiled by a reading association. I don’t think it will be available to the general public, so here’s my entry—

“No fire, no oatmeal. No fire, no oatmeal. No fire…
” And so begins the first chapter of my fictionalized family memoir Who’s Jim Hines?. Oatmeal at breakfast remains a motif throughout the rest of the book. But in fact, a hearty bowl of oatmeal in the morning is a breakfast staple for countless families.

While preparing oatmeal today generally involves a microwave oven and two or three minutes cooking time, in 1935 the process required standing next to a hot, wood-burning stove and stirring a pot of rolled oats for several minutes. I try to combine the best of both worlds—I cook with old-fashioned rolled oats but I use a very modern stove. I don’t mind a longer cooking time when the result is very similar in taste and texture to the steaming hot oatmeal my grandmother made decades ago.

Using “old-fashioned” rolled oats, and with per serving proportions of 1 cup water (or milk) to ½ cup rolled oats, bring measured water to a boil in saucepan.

Stir in measured portion of rolled oats.

Cook over medium heat for five minutes, until rolled oat mixture thickens.

Turn off heat and cover. Let sit for approximately 5 minutes before spooning into bowls.

For the 1935 version, add per bowl and stir if desired—

  • 1 t sugar
  • 1 pat butter
  • heavy cream or Pet® Evaporated Milk to cover

For the current version, add per bowl and stir if desired—

  • 1 T honey
  • ½ c raisins
  • dust with powdered cinnamon

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July 19, 2009

“The Same Scent”

I attended the Yule Love It Lavender Farm “Herbal & Honey Feast” yesterday. There were four acres of varied types of lavender. There was lavender in the food and drink. There were bunches of lavender hanging on lines and from racks. You could feel the lavender take over your whole being. Uncanny.

The farm’s owner is a writer. She shared with a rapt audience the connection between her farming the lavender and her writing.

There were other writers there. They know my work and remembered—from our conversations and group readings at a writers’ retreat at the farm several months ago—one project in particular. As one woman put it—the book about the girls. I have two current literary projects and both are about girls, but since one is totally “in cranium” I knew exactly which one she was referring to. Book one of the teen series.

I was pleased that these writers with so many other things swimming through their heads remembered my work in progress. And we were drawn together again by the same scent.

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July 12, 2009

“More Sleep Talk”

As I wrote in my July 5, 2009 journal entry: I write late at night. I sometimes fall asleep at my computer. Now there’s more to share. In addition to awakening with the birds, I have also sent—and even composed and then sent—emails while asleep.

The first time that happened, I was absolutely terrified that the sendee would realize that I the sender had done such a silly thing. I read the email. The message was clear even though it ended abruptly. I didn’t think it was necessary to send an explanatory email. Life went on.

Then I read an article in the New York Times several months ago. There is some kind of program Google offers to Gmail users to keep them from sending emails in their sleep. I’m relieved to note that I have so much company.

I don’t use Gmail. But even if I did, I don’t know that I would utilize that program. So far I haven’t embarrassed myself too much. And it’s nice to know that life goes on even in your sleep.

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July 5, 2009

“Vienna Woods”

My biological clock as a writer compels me to write late at night. In fact, I often write until the early hours of the morning. I’ve tried to become one of those writers who gets up at 5:30 a.m. and works on a manuscript for a couple of hours before heading off to their day job. Tried it. It just doesn’t work for me.

A couple of weeks ago I fell asleep at my computer (one of the hazards of late night writing!) and awoke to the dawn sound of birds singing—chreep-chreep, chreep-chreep. Now I don’t know if in Vienna, Austria they have sparrows or robin redbreasts as we have in abundance here in Detroit but I do know this: The chreep-chreep, chreep-chreep I heard that morning carried the same melodious ring and waltzing rhythm as heard in Johann Strauss the Younger’s “Tales of the Vienna Woods.” I kid you not.

I am so thankful to have awaken with these birds who transported me to the musical muse that must have inspired Strauss the composer.

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June 28, 2009

“Heart to Heart”

It began as a routine annual eye examination. My optometrist checked for glaucoma, cataracts. My head still, he asked me to follow the laser light around the room. He put me through the eye charts and wrote a slightly stronger prescription for my lenses.

Then as he wrote up the exam in my chart he began the casual talk. What kind of work do you do? I pulled my Who’s Jim Hines? bookmark from the book I had with me. He turned it over and read the synopsis on the back. He put down his pen and the floodgates opened.

“I’m going to get this book for my kids, but I’m going to read it first. This is an important story,” he said. An Asian Indian, he shared about his early years in India, how things changed so much post-September 11, 2001. “People look at me differently,” he said. “They make assumptions just because of my color.”

He asked questions about the book and my family.

The conversation lasted for just a few minutes. But I never would have guessed that what started as an eye exam would end with such a heart-to-heart talk.

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June 21, 2009

“Tired Mother, Tired Writer?”

The other morning I asked my son how he managed to get to bed at a decent hour. His reply—“When I’m tired, I go to bed.”

Hmmm. Novel idea. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Then it hit me.

I’m a mother. Mothers aren’t wired that way. From the time we bring our newborn home, we’re used to being tired. We’re used to working through the tiredness. Doing what needs to be done in spite of being tired. That’s just the way it is. Moms know this.

And accepting that fact has helped me immensely as a writer. My early reputation as a freelance editor spread because of my ability to make incredibly impossible deadlines. That means I will work nonstop—even though I’m dog-tired—to turn a manuscript in on time.

My kids are young adults now so I think I can get off the tired mommy track. But the tired writer syndrome will be hard to beat.

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June 14, 2009

“How It Ends, part 2”

When I returned to my “day job” office (I’m a grant writer for a mental health agency), my buddy in the next office asked me what was the best thing that happened on my week off. Without skipping a beat I answered, I figured out the end of book one of my YA series.

She stood there, stunned. I don’t know what she was expecting. Obviously something that in her mind was more substantial.

I went on to explain to her what I shared in last week’s Write Word Journal. And then I added, it’s like our own life. We know how it’s going to end—in death. It’s up to us to make sure that what’s leading up to death has meaning and substance.

We writers get to play with life and death. Until we get it right.

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June 7, 2009

“How It Ends”

I’m still completing the detailed outline and storyboard for book one of my YA (young adult) series. True to my usual form, I jump around to different characters and various scenes. Today I was focused on the ending, and I was stuck. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make the final twists of plot come together.

And then it came to me. I knew exactly what characters would have to do what actions for the ending to make the kind of statement I envisioned.

Yet, something equally as fantastic happened at that point. As soon as the ending was complete, it was as if the entire book was written in my head. All of the characters and scenes took note and rearranged themselves to fall in line with that ending.

So now I feel as though I’m almost ready to get down to the business of transcribing the scenes as I sit back, watch, and let the action play out. (Which is how I usually write, anyway.)

But this time, I am much more acutely aware of how my creative process is affected by how the book ends.

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May 31, 2009

“A Child’s Mind”

I was one of a roomful of judges at a Reading Rainbow Young Writers and Illustrators Contest a few weeks ago. Other judges included several local librarians and many volunteers from a national retailer. I was the only author present, and a children’s author at that.

This was my second year as a judge. And one thing I noticed—to my pleasure and relief—was that there were far fewer manuscripts submitted that had obviously been written or strongly influenced by the parents of these young authors. It’s easy to tell the difference.

Even a very bright and precocious child will still view the world—and express that worldview—through the eyes and language of someone who has only lived a very few years. Even if their brains are beginning to process complex thoughts, children are limited in their ability to manipulate those thoughts through the intricate maze of mature memories and varied experiences.

But a well-crafted story that was actually written by a child can be an absolute delight to read. Reading a manuscript where the young writer is trying to manipulate that very limited range of experiences in order to express some complex ideas is like watching a skilled craftsperson at work with a limited set of tools. The end result can still be superb.

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May 24, 2009

“Brain Change”

Read a fascinating article on the National Public Radio website entitled “Prayer May Reshape Your Brain…And Your Reality.” It described some researchers who’ve discovered that folks who pray one or more hours per day—their brains look different. Something about the physiology of intense spirituality.


That got me to thinking. If uber praying changes your brain, what happens to writers, like me, who immerse themselves into our characters when we write. I’ll admit that I have what can only be termed a spiritual connection with many of my characters. Has my brain changed?

The thought makes me feel somewhat uneasy. I won’t—in fact, can’t—change the way I write. But it’s somewhat unsettling to realize that my brain might be altered because of the characters I’ve assembled in my head.

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May 17, 2009

“Left Alone”

I had an interesting experience the other day after a reading at a middle school in a Detroit suburb. The presentation went very well—a great group of 7th & 8th graders. They had all read the book; they were well prepped; I felt connected.

At the end, the principal presented me with a school tee shirt. Someone else took photos. Teachers came up and congratulated me. Students shook my hand. It was good.

The principal dismissed the assembly. They disbursed in an orderly fashion while I gathered my belongings—tripod, sign, props. But the next thing I noticed, I was alone in the auditorium. Everyone had left. I tried a few exits—all locked. I tried a few other doors. One led to an unused back hallway. I was totally disoriented. I followed the sound of kids’ voices and finally found my way to the front entrance.

From adulation to abandonment.

Reality check.

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May 10, 2009

“I Was Wrong”

I have to admit that I was somewhat disappointed when I received notice that two of my three appearances for the Library of Michigan 2009 Notable Authors Tour would be at high schools. Looking at the list of bookings for the other authors, I felt a twinge of jealousy. I suppose I harbored a subconscious snobbism—an auditorium full of high school kids probably assembled against their will could not possibly equal the rewards of speaking before a group of library patrons who actually chose to be there.

I was wrong.

The room was full of character. Side characters to be exact. Those are folks that an author will pop into a scene. They may never be heard from again but they provide some situational weight to the narrative.

Like the one student who tripped across the auditorium seats and made the room her own.

Or the row of teen girls—the only white students in a school of black and Hispanic kids—dressed in white polo shirts. They listened intently and actually made me nervous…

Have I mentioned that I’m working on a teen novel? You’ll be seeing these kids again.

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May 3, 2009

“Slumped in Their Seats”

I was the guest author at an assembly of AP and honors English classes at a high school in a city on the other side of Michigan. All it took was one teen girl loudly tripping across several seats. Was it done purposely? I don’t know. But it garnered the entire auditorium’s attention—and soon every teenager in that room wanted a piece of that spotlight.

Chaos ruled. The teachers and administrators in charge either would not or could not regain order.

I was just the hapless guest. With no cues from anyone I resumed my presentation to the entire group, but focused my message to the few quiet ones, slumped in their seats, who seemed to be trying to listen without directing attention to themselves.

I finished. The student advocate presented me with a plaque. The principal orchestrated several photo ops. The mayor’s wife apologized for the kids’ unruly behavior.

Life happens.

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April 26, 2009

“Bake Sales—Scene 1, Take 2”

There was a discussion on the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators-Michigan Chapter listserve the other day about whether authors should charge a fee for school readings. The quick answer is yes—as professional writers we should be compensated for our labors just like any other trained professional.

On a deeper context, I will offer this anecdote as an answer. One of my best student audiences was at a charter school in Detroit just outside of the tiny city of Hamtramck, a city of immigrants. According to the school’s principal, the students were primarily children of Yemeni immigrants, most had no books at home, and they had never met an author before.

I remarked to him what a rapt and appreciative group they had been during my presentation. The principal explained that not only were they great kids, but they had held bake sales to pay for my fee (which I had reduced at his request). All of that to say that it helped these children to understand that writing is something of value when they actually had to work to make my visit happen.

And happen it did.

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April 19, 2009

“Release Form”

I usually don’t get nervous before a reading. But this time, I did.

I had signed a release form for the representative from Central Michigan University Public Radio to record my presentation at the East Lansing Public Library last Saturday. The recording, one of a series focusing on Michigan writers, would be broadcast later this year and then stored in the Clarke Historical Library archives.

I had decided to give my basic talk for Who’s Jim Hines? but, once I began speaking, wondered if it was really good enough for posterity. Did I want someone—decades from now—to listen to that recording and hear possibly the only recording of me, reading from my book and talking about my family?

The nervousness didn’t subside until the radio rep turned off the recording equipment. He removed his earphones and gave me a compliment, saying it was the best author reading he’d heard to date.

I was relieved. And I took him at his word that it was good enough to leave for posterity.

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April 12, 2009

“Bake Sales”

From my Facebook Wall-to-Wall with G.F.—

JAE status update—The Oakland International Academy visit this morning was over the top—thanks kids (w/ kudos to the teachers for great prep work!).

GF—So what was it that you did at this school that was so wonderful?

JAE—The students were engaging and engaged. Turns out, they held bake sales to pay for my visit. So they were invested in my visit. I could tell!

GF—So…what did you do there?

JAE—I talked about my life as a writer, the process of writing Who’s Jim Hines?, interspersed w/ readings from the book, then a Q & A—the usual program but the connection was very satisfying. Writers thrive on that kind of thing, you know.

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April 5, 2009


I visited a third grade class at Washington Elementary School during their Young Authors Day festivities. I had prepared a presentation on embellishment and writing fiction.

Here’s what I did. I brought my fushia colored desktop Xmas tree from which I had removed the brightly painted glass ornaments. As soon as I pulled the tree out of the bag, I felt like the Pied Piper—I could have led them anywhere. Maybe it was the color, I don’t know. But they were mesmerized. As I placed the ornaments back on the tree, I discussed embellishing.

Then I picked the chapter from Who’s Jim Hines? in which I describe how some of the neighborhood children would steal wood from the wood yard to use as toys. I read the chapter to them to show how I took that one fact, embellished it, and created an entire chapter.

They got it. Completely.

Hands shot up. Comments were blurted out.

They understood what it means to write fiction. And I have to admit—the prospect excited even me.

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March 29, 2009

“America at Its Best”

I have to admit—the prospect of a school visit makes me nervous. More than any other author event, students are a demanding audience and with good reason: They usually don’t want to attend the assembly. They more often than not have either not read my books or the books have not been read/introduced to them (for which they are not to blame—the school shoulders that responsibility in prepping them for the visit). It’s up to me from moment one to catch their attention and create an immediate interest in the book. While it’s always worth the effort, it is no small task.

Every once in a while, the stars converge in a perfect alignment and I have an out-of-body experience such as the one at Washington Elementary School in Flint, Michigan.

I was invited as the guest author for their Young Authors Day. I could feel their welcome as the students entered the lunchroom turned assembly room. They were a diverse group—black, white, Hispanic. It looked like America at its best. They were excited, interested, and attentive. I do believe I could have talked all day and they would have been glad to listen.

Looking out at their faces, I was struck with their expectation—they were expecting a word from me and wanted some kind of connection. And from the feel of the place as I talked and shared, I believe I was united with each and every one of them. If they got half as much from my visit as I received from them, I served them well.

Thanks kids—I won’t forget you.

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March 22, 2009

“Deep Dive”

I heard the term “deep dive” for the first time several weeks ago as I sat in on a meeting between a social service agency and a bank loan officer. The loan officer was describing what the agency had done--taken a standard social program and transformed it to such an extent that it was multi-faceted and expansive beyond the original entity. Deep dive, the officer said.

Deep dive.

I like those words. Yes they can be used to articulate the commitment, vision, and dedication inherent in an out-of-the-box human service program. But writers—and artists too—can embrace the term. It’s what we do when we’re totally immersed in a character or in the development of a plot. It’s the place we inhabit when we’re no longer aware of our surroundings, but instead are focused completely on bringing out what resides in corners of our psyches that for the most part seem impossible to reach.

I can’t think of a better phrase. Tell me if you can.

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March 15, 2009


I’ve received a number of rather long, yet very interesting, email messages from some of the readers of my latest book Who’s Jim Hines?. This group happens to have used the same term—coincidence—to describe in detail what they or their relatives shared in common with people and places in the book.

In particular, one reader recalls hearing her grandparents on several occasions speak of living on Halleck Street during the Great Depression. Now, Who’s Jim Hines?—which takes place during that same time period—describes both the Ford family home and my grandfather’s wood business as being located on Halleck Street.

Coincidence? Certainly, but more than that.

There are crosscurrents of seemingly unrelated histories here, possibilities of paths that have intersected. This reader’s experience confirms the need to share our stories—that's one of the only ways we'll ever be prompted to discover such curious links in our histories.

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March 8, 2009

“Fill in the Blanks”

Here’s my guilty pleasure—I love reading the Sunday New York Times wedding announcements. Not because I am particularly interested in the weddings per se—I don’t care where the couple got married, who officiated over the ceremony, or whether the bride will keep her last name.

What I do like is to fill in the blanks: I enjoy trying to figure out what was left out of the newspaper, imagining the family dynamics. So if the father is a world-renowned neurosurgeon and the daughter is marrying an artist’s assistant, I envision behind the scenes talks between father and daughter. Or I’ll wonder, was it really love? Or was it a case of post-adolescence rebellion?

It’s fun in a quirky sort of way. And perhaps, as a writer, I’m hooked on character analysis and plot deconstruction.

Go figure.

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March 1, 2009

“Is He a Legend?”

At a reading/signing event at Ladels--one of metropolitan Detroit’s newest independent children’s bookstores, www.ladelsbooks.com --a youngster in attendance queried whether my grandfather, Douglas Ford, Sr., was a legend. I was momentarily stumped but quickly recovered. I answered that yes, there were still neighbors in the old neighborhood that remembered him and the Ford family. I concluded, that could qualify him as a legend.

That same day in the mail, I received a very long letter from an adult who had recently attended my reading/signing event at a chain bookstore. In her closing remark, she thanked me for making it possible for her to meet my grandfather through Who’s Jim Hines?.

That letter prompted me to think that my answer to the youngster may not have been too far off. I looked up the word “legend” in The New American Heritage College Dictionary, third edition. I now know that the modern usage of the term can refer to someone “…whose fame promises to be particularly enduring.”

Perhaps Douglas Ford, Sr. will, indeed, become a legend.

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February 22, 2009

“Nothing to Hide”

I never had to hide Christmas or birthday gifts when my kids were young. I kept them in plain site and they were never noticed. Seems that when you go about your daily life, even a new addition to the normal run of things often blends in unnoticed. It can quickly become a part of the norm and the mundane.

I recalled this as I read an email message from someone who had just finished reading Who’s Jim Hines?. She said she’s good at guessing plots in books, on TV, and in films but that I had her stumped--she never figured out who Jim Hines was on her own.

Good to know the ruse still works.

And, yes, I’m glad to know this reader nonetheless kept trying to the end.

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February 15, 2009

“Pushing the Muse”

Fortunately, I’ve never experienced writer’s block. There has never been a time when, if I really wanted to write, I couldn’t just sit down and write. All that as a preface to an email I received the other night. A woman who had been a student in my Macomb Book Fair workshop on writing a children’s book series sent me a very nice and very long message.

She explained that because of my presentation, she had broken through a thirty-year writer’s block. She was now writing furiously and—more that that—enjoying it tremendously.


I remember the woman clearly. I recall thinking that she had a pent-up energy about her. I queried her about her life experiences and encouraged her to base her writing on them.

She credited me for providing her with a needed push. Good advice and encouragement. I can only say that whatever happened between the two of us would have occurred eventually via someone else. But I’m pleased to know that my instincts were on point, and I was able to provide the needed push for a recalcitrant muse.

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February 8, 2009

“Who Went to Law School”

Terry Gross, the public radio host, recently replayed an interview with comedian Demetri Martin that was first broadcast in 2007. In the interview, Martin described how he started law school and then after one month, knew it wasn’t for him. But he stayed on for two years until dropping out with one year to go.

I had the same one-month experience. But I stayed on and finished, passed the state bar exam, and practiced law for several years before leaving the profession.

Hearing that interview made me wonder—once again—what makes creative types think that they can thrive in the legal profession? That question comes to mind whenever I read about “former” attorneys who are now writers and artists and no longer practice law.

I had a table at a book fair last fall and a gentleman who bought a copy of Who’s Jim Hines? somehow got me to talk about myself to the extent that I admitted my previous life as a lawyer. He said something to the effect of, “You didn’t realize how strong your urge to create was going to be, did you?”

True that.

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February 1, 2009

“Tell Me About the Wood Yard”

So what about those stories we cannot afford to lose? How do we preserve then? Who will tell them?

Each family has its griots—those who remember what happened in the past and who make sure those stories are told again and again, never to be forgotten. In my Ford family, during biennial reunions, I take great comfort and pleasure when the “elders” begin to share those tales. Sometimes there are new remembrances. But more often than not they are the same stories—perhaps starting from a different perspective or changing in the middle somewhat, but the same stories nonetheless. I cannot hear them enough.

When Detroit Free Press columnist Desiree Cooper interviewed me for an article that will appear in the February 25, 2009 edition of the newspaper, she asked me about the times I interviewed my uncle, Douglas Ford Jr., to gather material for Who’s Jim Hines?. “What kinds of questions did you ask him in order to fill in the blanks?” she asked.

I had to admit that I asked the same question at each sitting: “Tell me about the wood yard.” My uncle’s answers were never the same. Each time I asked, he explored another aspect of life in the Ford family wood business and in their home at 1950 Halleck Street. And as I listened and prepared to write, it became clear to me that it is now my turn to tell those stories.

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January 25, 2009

“Understand Why”

I was interviewed the other day by a columnist for one of Detroit’s daily newspapers about my latest book Who’s Jim Hines?. (The interview, by Desiree Cooper, should appear in the February 25 edition of the Detroit Free Press.) We spoke on the telephone for almost an hour, so there were many questions, most of which I cannot specifically remember. But one that I do recall focused on why I spent ten years on this manuscript. Why I felt it was important to work for so long to get this story about my family out.

I responded—using different words—but similar to what these writers had to say. Shutta Crum, in a section of her blog (shutta.com) titled “Writings About Mom & Dad” said, “I urge you to keep track of your family stories, they are little gems we can hand down to future generations.”

My cousin shared this in an email message to me after her son read Who’s Jim Hines? aloud to her while on a road trip, “It was really wonderful to picture life in the Ford house when our parents were children. I have always told Michael that he had a great legacy to live up to. Now he understands why!”

There is a compelling need to pass our stories along. To get the word out. To make valid our passing admonitions.

Some stories become lost in the passage of time. Some we cannot afford to lose.

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January 18, 2009

“Barrier Line”

Our son’s girlfriend was visiting our home on Christmas Eve. She was sitting in my favorite chair in the great room looking at the wall of bookshelves overfilled with books. She asked if they were arranged in any particular way. I was quick to point out among my shelves the autographed poetry books, books by special authors, books with religious themes, and so on. Then I pointed out a row of books that I myself had written, or edited, or ghostwritten. Tucked among those volumes was one that appeared to be misplaced: Ake: the years of childhood by Wole Soyinka. I had momentarily forgotten why I put it there.

Then I remembered.

I began reading that book on a beach in Michigan’s upper peninsula almost twenty years ago. And on page two I came upon a four-word sentence—a barrier line—that I was not able to cross. I read that line and I was fixated. I could not move forward.

I was drawn into these four words: The hibiscus was rampant. And I could not read on.

Yet, I will make a promise to Mr. Soyinka right here and now that one day I will read the rest of his book. But even when I do cross that barrier line, those words will always represent one thing for me—perfect writing.

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January 11, 2009

“A Line on a Postcard”

I have another recollection of my recent visit to the Arts Extended Gallery. Dr. Taylor—the gallery director and co-founder—is the consummate world traveler. Whenever we chance to meet, our conversation often centers on my queries about her latest travels or upcoming journeys. This last occasion was no different.

However, this time she turned the conversation around and recalled a trip I had taken to Greece over two decades ago with my sister. I was stunned that she remembered the trip. Dr. Taylor even recalled the one line message I scrawled across the postcard I sent to her which read, “Loving every minute!”

There it is again. One of those writer’s lines. I’ve written about several in this Write Word Journal. They form a strong basis for my life and work as a writer. Only this time it was my line that a reader could not shake loose. When she thought about me, she recalled those three words.

It was a very odd feeling, knowing that such a brief message of mine still reverberated in Dr. Taylor’s memory. Stranger still that when she thought of me, she thought of that line on a postcard.

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January 4, 2009

“Big Deal!”

After the publication of an early volume in my “Joe Joe in the City” series, I was the guest author at a local library event. One of the guests spoke to me afterwards and said that she read about the event on my online calendar. I found that comment interesting because—to my knowledge—I didn’t have an online calendar.

Now I do.

If you’re reading this you’re at my website. Website. I entered the digital age with the thought of all of the posting and even the social networking with much trepidation. A lot of writers are like that. I owned my domain name for several years before I launched this site. Go figure…

But, I got over my jitters. I’ve got the website now where—among other things— any and everyone can find my calendar. I’ve even embraced social networking via Facebook. (I know it’s late in the game but don’t laugh. This is a very big deal for me.) Want to see my profile or write on my wall? Click Here

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December 28, 2008

“Clarinet or Sax?”

On December 21, I visited the Arts Extended Gallery in Detroit on the occasion its 50 year—golden—anniversary. The director for as many years as well as a co-founder is Dr. Cledie Taylor. Not only is she is a magnificent artist and art collector, but she happens to have been my art history teacher in high school. We have kept in touch throughout the years (she does the same with all of her students) and she was eager to know about my future writing projects.

I described one project that will focus on my paternal grandfather who—in addition to his day job—played the alto saxophone in a jazz ensemble that bore his name. I explained my desire to take saxophone lessons in order to be able to delve into his life more fully. Dr. Taylor suggested that I start with the clarinet. “Same fingerings. Breathing is less difficult,” she said.

I considered her advice. But in the end my decision is a no-brainer. More of a struggle to conquer the breathing technique? That’s the friction I wrote about before. The rub that’s necessary in order to create any well-crafted tale.

If I want to know more deeply some bit of the pain and anguish embedded in my grandfather’s life, then plunging headfirst and learning this instrument with all of its difficulties will do that for me.

So I’ll embrace the struggle. I’ll begin with the sax.

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December 21, 2008

“A Major Intersection”

A few weeks ago I took part in the celebration of National Inspirational Role Models Month by conducting a workshop on inspirational writing for youth. For various reasons, only one pre-registered participant actually arrived for the session. After listing my published work as well as describing my resume as a professional writer—which includes stints as a contract editor—this person asked me a very potent question. She queried, “If you’re a professional editor, why do you let others edit your work?” I will expand upon the answer I gave to her.

We neither live nor write in a vacuum. The world of which we write and the world in which we live of necessity must intersect. That intersection takes into account the fact that we cannot always see the weaknesses inherent in what we have written.

So looking at the Acknowledgments page of my most recently published book Who’s Jim Hines?, I give editorial thanks to three people in particular. The Wayne State University Press acquiring editor asked that I transform the manuscript from a picture storybook to a chapter book for older readers. My sister—who not only knows me but also knows the family history very well—suggested the title, which in turn set my course for the development of the revised manuscript. That new title kept the scope of my thinking within perimeters that helped me create the book as it now stands.

When I submitted the revised chapter book manuscript, my editor pointed out three chapters that—to her reading—did not add to the flow of the story. I liked those chapters. Very much. But I took them out because I trusted her belief in the book’s potential and what was required to create a strong story. I sincerely believe that the book is better without them (though I might use them in another form in another book!).

My son smiled—versus his standard grunt—upon reading certain chapters. That was all the validation I needed to keep writing.

A manuscript is never the product of one person’s mind. And when we refuse to allow others into our creative processes, we do a great injustice to what we create.

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December 14, 2008

“That Hurts”

A few months ago I attended a writers’ retreat. One of the participants was bemoaning the fact that she was not yet published and she basically knew the reason: The subject matter of her plots was…boring. Of the interesting stories she could explore she replied, “Some thing’s are just too painful to write about.”

I thought of her reply as I perused the list of 20 titles selected as the Library of Michigan’s 2009 Michigan Notable Books. My most recent book—Who’s Jim Hines?—is among the list and I am thrilled to be in such superb company.

Here’s what I noticed. The topics explore the depths of the human struggle to survive, serve, overcome, and take the road less traveled. The books address war, competition, social upheavals, mental illness, rejection, exploitation, and exploration.

The tone of these books is not always dire by any means. But the hook, the grabber, the lure to any well-crafted tale is the edge. The rub. The friction in life that keeps us from losing our footing and sliding down a slippery slope.

In exploring their topics and creating their books, these authors certainly didn’t shy away from pain. And no writer should.

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December 8, 2008

“Truth through Fiction”

I took part in two book signing events this weekend at two very different locations—one at a major chain bookstore, the other at a church bazaar. At each venue, one comment was repeated over and over. Several people, whether they bought the book or just thumbed through the pages, remarked to me how important it is that we share our stories.

They didn’t go into detail and they didn’t have to. Even strangers to me and my family history recognized the necessity to pass along the details of our past. Whether they be anecdotes, secrets, schemes, or even myths, pulled together these bits of history provide a narrative that preserves the past for successive generations.

The rationale is a no-brainer. The accomplishment is no small feat. Various tales woven together often appear as gibberish or as a lot of ancestral noise that is just as well forgotten.

As a writer, I find that’s the beauty of portraying the truth through fiction. Holes can be plugged up. Narratives can be expanded. Names can be changed—the noise dampened—and the truth be told.

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December 1, 2008

“Walking on My History”

Interviewing three writers with immigrant backgrounds, National Public Radio produced a series during Thanksgiving week on becoming American. One writer described her parents as saying they had one foot here and one foot in their homeland—they are American citizens, but they are still connected to the land of their birth.

It’s that pull of the soil. I know it all too well.

Upon hearing the comment of the writer’s parents, I immediately recalled my visit during the previous week to 1950 Halleck Street. It was a cold day. The PR reps who accompanied me stepped lightly on the hard grass, skirting garbage strewn across where a sidewalk should have been. But I felt home beneath my feet and stepped firmly. I walked where the house, the driveway, the fruit trees and grape arbor had been. They were walking on frozen ground. I was walking on my history.

The pull of the soil can be a powerful thing. I am grateful that I am still close and connected to the land of my birth.

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November 22, 2008

“The Milky Green Stained Glass Window”

Yesterday I visited the lot where the house at 1950 Halleck Street once stood.

Background: When I was a very young child, I spent quite a bit of time at my grandparents’ home at 1950 Halleck Street in Detroit, Michigan. Before we were old enough to attend school, my cousins and I spent our days there while our parents advanced their careers at their respective jobs.

While there was no longer a wood yard on the property (see my latest book Who’s Jim Hines? for more on the wood yard), we youngsters found plenty to do in the back and side yards—running up and down the back porch steps, climbing the lowest boughs of the fruit trees, peering at the sky through the huge grape arbor.

I also was mesmerized by something next door to my grandparents’ side yard. It was a milky green stained glass window on the side of the neighbor’s house. I would just stand there in the side yard and stare at that window. There was no intricate leaded design to catch my attention. Just a sheet of glass colored with milky green swirls. But for some reason that colored glass fascinated me.

Fast forward some decades: I hadn’t thought of that window all of those years. I had visited the site only once since my youth and don’t remember even looking at the window. Now, on a cold fall day, I was taking my publisher’s PR team on a tour of the lot where the house at 1950 Halleck Street once stood. The house had been taken by the freeway. The grape arbor was long gone. The fruit trees were gone as well.

But this time I noticed the window.

The house next door was mostly boarded up. But quite surprising for me, the window was still intact. And maybe because it is the only tangible thing that remains from my memories of a time so many years ago—but I stood in the side yard on a bitterly cold fall afternoon and stared at that milky green stained glass window.

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November 17, 2008

“A Writer’s Lines”

A few weeks ago I wrote about “lines of time”: those bits of remembrance that fire my muse.

I’ve also shared a couple of what I’ll now call “writer’s lines.” Look through the Write Word Journal archives and you’ll find the line from Jane Eyre, “Reader, I married him.” You’ll also see my mention of Robert Hayden’s final lines from his poem “Those Winter Sundays.”

This time I’ll share a writer’s line from Dandelion Wine. This was Ray Bradbury’s first novel. I read it in middle school and haven’t picked it up since. But one line has stuck with me through all of these years. It’s the line spoken by Helen Loomis to Bill Forrester—from a ninety-five year old woman to a thirty-one year old man—“…you were born either too early or too late.”

I have thought of this writer’s line sporadically throughout my life because it encapsulates the essence of what often seems to be the capriciousness of time. How one moment, seemingly misplaced, can change life forever: a devastating word from one spouse to another that cannot be retracted and will never be forgotten. Or a connection that could have been consummated had it occurred a day, or as in Bradbury’s novel perhaps several decades, earlier.

I remember this writer’s line spoken by Ms. Loomis when I think about time.

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November 10, 2008

“I See What I See…”

So what are the eyes of a writer? I’ve mentioned in previous postings—

  • Seeing the story
  • Seeing my grandfather on a painter’s canvas
  • Seeing the world differently.

What is it exactly that I see through these writer’s eyes?

First, my writer’s eyes see continuity. I try to create a bridge that connects the story I envision with the words that end up on paper. When it works well, the reader sees what I see and enters my world.

Next, and this may seem incongruous with continuity, but my writer’s eyes record distinct “scenes.” The world becomes a storyboard. I have files upon files of notes chronicling scenes witnessed in a hospital waiting room, or at a nearby table at a restaurant, or while walking through a public park. At some point, these snatches of time will be expanded to a chapter in a book, or a paragraph within a narrative. But for now, they are unconnected glimpses into the world I inhabit.

Finally, this writer’s eyes see the past as if it were the present. I felt just as comfortable writing about life surrounding my grandfather’s 1935 wood business as I did sitting in my cousin’s backyard during our Ford family reunion in 2008.

Enough explanation. I see what I see.

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November 3, 2008

“Seeing the Story…”

I was a very young girl when I first heard the story of my grandfather’s driver Jim Hines. The story was told to me by my grandmother, my mother, and my aunts—they were the family griots. And as is the case with much family lore, I heard the story so often that it eventually ceased to carry any special relevance to me other than to elicit an “um hum” or an “oh yeah…”

When does the familiar transcend the ordinary and become the extraordinary? In this case, it happened via my cousin (whom I thank on the acknowledgement page of Who’s Jim Hines?). She is my youngest aunt’s stepdaughter. She came into the family as a teenager and first heard about Jim Hines as an adult. Something clicked inside her upon that first hearing and she “saw” the story immediately. She phoned me, giddy over the tale.

Her enthusiasm engulfed me and, for the first time, I embraced the tale.

What happened? Why did it take decades for me to “see the story” and write the book? Fresh eyes, mature eyes: both were necessary for me to revisit this old, old story. As well as a willingness to see something that I had internalized so long ago as a child—through the eyes of a writer.

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October 26, 2008

“After So Many Years…”

“How long did it take you to write Who’s Jim Hines?”

That is a question that I am asked at every school presentation I make. What I find even more interesting is that my fellow writers have also asked me that same question as we chat during slow periods at book fairs and author events.

The students are always amazed when I answer, “Ten years.” I explain that the manuscript existed in various forms as a picture storybook for 5 years. Then through various rewrites as a middle grade chapter book per the suggestion of the Wayne State University Press Acquiring Editor. By the publication date in August 2008, ten years had passed.

The students are amazed, but the writers are not. It is a familiar timeline—eight, ten, fifteen years. Stories are hatched, editors intrigued, plots are tweaked, editors no longer interested...Not to mention the time during which a tale germinates in the author’s mind, taking twists and turns before finally emerging in that final form.

My cousin, a children’s book illustrator whom I thank in the acknowledgment page of Who’s Jim Hines?, also understands. After receiving the copy of the book I sent to her, she emailed a thank you that read in part, “Incredible to finally hold a copy in my hand after so many years…if people only knew what goes into a book…”

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October 19, 2008

“Lines of Time”

I call them “lines of time.” They are the snippets of conversation that I gathered from my mother, her oldest sister, and my uncle. These bits of remembrance provided me with most of what I needed to conjure up the story of Who’s Jim Hines?.

Sitting in the yard of my cousin’s farmhouse outside of Pittsburgh, my uncle explained the importance of his job of starting the fire in the wood-burning stove in the kitchen. “Without that fire, there would be no hot oatmeal for breakfast,” he said. Hence the opening line of the first chapter of the book— No fire, no oatmeal. No fire, no oatmeal.

My mother described her Polish neighbors every Saturday night as “dancing the Polka all night long…” That was enough to guide me in creating chapter two with its introduction of the ethnic composition of the Ford family’s neighborhood.

Each chapter was propelled by similar “lines of time.” How can a few lines of time—a few words of remembrance—be enough to ignite a book’s narrative? Once again, I believe it’s connected with embracing the timeless zone I wrote about last week. Each line was an invitation to explore and research another time. I was then able to refine my own vision of that distant reality.

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October 12, 2008

“The Timeless Zone”

I generally don’t easily follow films that explore the nature of time or go back in time or repeat a spot in time over and over. Films such as “Terminator,” “Ground Hog Day,” and “Twelve Monkeys”—with few exceptions—bore me and confuse me. I tend to fall asleep after the first few time-muddled scenes.

But then recently, in response to my announcement of the RSS feed on my website, I received an email from a friend with whom I haven’t had face to face contact in almost twenty years. She extolled the virtues of our remaining connected via the internet and referred to the internet as a convenient “timeless” zone.

That comment blew me away. As much as I reject the concept in films, I realized that I have, on my own, been exploring time as well as the nature of time through my writings. I have entered my own “timeless” zone.

Who’s Jim Hines? takes place almost seventy-five years ago. I had to inhabit that era, in my mind, in order to write about it. I, in turn, brought that time up to the twenty-first century when I created the story. Even my mother and two of her sisters remarked that they felt as if there were back in 1935 as they read the book.

Without even realizing it, I have been wandering freely within a timeless zone. The story demanded it. And, as the writer, I have embraced that space.

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October 6, 2008

“Four Words from Jane Eyre”

“Reader, I married him.” Those four words—that seminal line—from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, encapsulate the essence of the writer/reader relationship at its best and most intimate. With that line, Bronte accomplishes three things:

  • First, she acknowledges that there is a reader,
  • Second, Bronte manages to pull that person—the reader—into the narrative of the book, and
  • Third, she addresses the fact that oftentimes, and I believe primarily in the realm of fiction writing, a new and unique relationship evolves between the writer and each reader because someone has become immersed in what another has written.

I explore those words of Bronte, particularly that third point, because of an email I received a few days ago. Someone I only recently met purchased a copy of Who’s Jim Hines? at a conference of children’s book writers that we both attended. She wrote to me after reading the book. And she shared something that for some reason shook me. She said the book “…became a reality that I was able to be part of.”

I have to admit that at first I felt violated. I felt that she had entered a part of my space where she had no right to be. Silly me. Because as I said in my May 1, 2008 Write Word posting, I want my readers to join me in my virtual world. It’s that new relationship Bronte paid homage to when she wrote, “Reader, I married him.” And it is indeed why I write.

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October 1, 2008

“Remembering Robert Hayden”

Robert Hayden is my favorite poet. Yet I had not thought of him—or his work— for quite some time. Until, that is, I was writing the September 1, 2008 Write Word entry for this website. Then, as I was writing the opening sentence of the third and final paragraph, I wrote, “How can we know—how can we know—when events in our life…”

As I wrote, “How can we know,” I knew immediately what words had to follow. I was suddenly filled with the thought of Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays” and those powerful final lines—“What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

And there was no question but that I had to repeat that line of mine. Not so much because my entry demanded it. No, rather because suddenly I was filled with the realization that Hayden’s poetry is a part of me, is within me, and is welcome to remind me of its place in my creative existence even as I write.

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September 1, 2008

“A Slice of Life”

Recently, I received a call from Colleen Kammer, owner of The Book Beat (which I believe is one of the finest independent bookstores in metropolitan Detroit, www.thebookbeat.com). She had just read Who’s Jim Hines? and wanted to congratulate me on the book’s publication. During our conversation, one of her comments that I most appreciate was that the storyline represents a “slice of life.”

I generally think of a “slice of life” as referring to a shorter span of time and the plot of Who’s Jim Hines? covers a span of a few months. So I was intrigued by Colleen’s comment. But after some thought, what I now understand is that a “slice of life” refers to those blocks of time, be they short or long, that converge and do two things—first, they bring meaning to so many seemingly random moments from our past. Second, they propel us onto our future.

How can we know—how can we know—when events in our life will find us in the midst of a “slice of life?” I’m not going to try to answer that one right now. I just want you to think about it.

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August 1, 2008

“The Child Within Me”

I sat for an interview a few days ago with a program host for our local Detroit public radio station. The subject of the interview was my recently released middle grade book Who’s Jim Hines?. The host was a very astute interviewer, which I appreciate very much.

While he was interested in the local Detroit history focus of the book, what seemed to intrigue him more was the fact that as an adult I was able to see and write the twelve-year-old protagonist’s story. I was able to express that world through the eyes of a child. I had the feeling that he had been waiting to ask a writer what he asked of me—how does an adult write from the viewpoint of a child?

While this was a taped and not a live interview, I still could not ponder this question too deeply. But what I answered, and upon closer reflection what I still believe to be true, is this. My mother and her siblings were children when the book’s events occurred. These stories were a part of them. I heard the stories of the Douglas Ford Wood Company and Jim Hines from them when I was a child. These stories became a part of my connective history with my relatives.

So it was very natural—if not always easy—for me to write this book from the eyes of a twelve-year-old child. The story that I saw and translated in the form of a book was the world that was told to me, grew up with me, and became my own.

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July 1, 2008

“Seeing My Grandfather”

I’ve always had an affinity for visual art. I love the immediacy. One glance at a well-executed painting on a wall or sculpture in a courtyard is enough to grab my attention and shake my senses to the core. That kind of visual power attracts me.

So when Detroit-based figure/portrait artist John Hegarty asked me to sit as one of his models, I immediately agreed—I would be able to witness a master at work and up close. More to the point, I was curious to find out what part of me would end up on the paper. What exactly would he see when he searched my soul looking for me?

I never would have guessed. After the first session, I took a quick peek at what John had done and couldn’t believe who I saw. Those first few lines produced a sketch of my maternal grandfather, Douglas Ford Sr. When John Hegarty explored the depths of my existence, he pulled out my grandfather’s face as it rested in mine.

Small wonder that I was compelled to write Who’s Jim Hines? This middle-grade novel is rooted in the story of my grandfather’s business, the Douglas Ford Wood Company. But I now know—after seeing that man where I expected to find my own face—that as much as it is his story, it is also mine. |

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June 1, 2008

“More About Those Pictures”

There is a Chicago-based artist—Deirdre Fox—who was one of my colleagues during my 2005 residency at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois. To describe her mesmerizing work, I have to paraphrase from the text on her website and say it falls somewhere between 2-D and 3-D. (See some of her work on www.artbydado.com.) Given the unusual nature of her art, I asked her one evening after our communal dinner with the other residents, “What do you see when you view the world?”

That was my clumsy way of acknowledging that she had to view the world differently in order to create the kind of visual art she makes.

Fast forward to a time a few months ago. I made a comment to a friend of mine who responded, “You would notice something like that—you’re a writer.” That was her way of acknowledging that I, too, view the world differently. I hear the sounds of life differently. Certain things interest me that perhaps others pass right by. Someone makes a comment and I cannot let go of it. I hear a bit of family history and it becomes a book.

Blessing or curse? Not sure yet, but it’s what I do and it’s another reason why I write.

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May 1, 2008

“Pictures in My Head”

At the end of my school presentations, I try to leave a good amount of time for questions from the audience. Even the most restless listeners manage to sit still during a “no-holds-barred” Q & A session.

At a recent elementary school reading, one very astute youngster asked me, “Do you see pictures in your head when you write?” I was pleasantly surprised at this question. In my many years of giving school readings, no child had ever asked me that question. Now, they have sometimes asked me how do I write, and I have given the answer that will soon follow. But this was the first time a student had phrased the query in that particular way.

In essence, she was asking—How do the stories you see in your head make it to the printed page?

By asking that question, the young girl had pretty much figured it out. She understood that the writing process involves a curious connection between the mind and the printed word. She understood that a writer doesn’t just write what s/he knows—a writer also writes what s/he “sees.”

When I write, I step into a realm of virtual reality. I am living in the world my characters inhabit, and I vigorously transcribe what I see and hear. It’s a game that can confound me. Why? Because my goal—which sometimes seems elusive at best—is to present the words in such a way that my readers join me in that virtual world. My writing becomes an invitation to step into another place to witness and even possess joy, passion, happiness, agony, fear, triumph and defeat outside of their own.

Yes I see pictures in my head. And because of those pictures, I write.

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April 1, 2008

“The Inkwell”

There have been many authors who have inspired me in my choice to pursue a career as a writer. But the first, and possibly strongest, influence in that decision was my grandmother. You see, my maternal grandmother, Maber Jackson Ford, was a writer. To the best of my knowledge she never wrote a book or published an article, but she was a writer still.

She wrote letters.

I remember so well as a young child watching her sit at the kitchen table and dip her fountain pen into the inkwell that held a glass jar full of midnight blue ink. She was left-handed, as I am. She repeatedly and methodically dipped her pen into the ink, put pen to paper, and wrote pages upon pages of lengthy letters to friends and relatives across the country.

The look of concentration in her face revealed her devotion to her correspondence. She thanked hostesses who were gracious to her during trips out East to visit my uncle and his family. She took care in sharing the details of her life in Detroit and that of her children and grandchildren to relatives in Tennessee. She maintained relationships with students from her days as a teacher down South in a one-room schoolhouse.

While she enjoyed reading the letters she received in reply, her real joy was in the writing. This one fact was obvious, even to me as a child: She was committed to her writing. She was serious about her work.

As a writer, I continually try to mirror her commitment to keep one word coming after the other, to finish the thought, to create the connection with the reader. Just as she dipped her pen in the ink and then put words to paper, I try to make the motions of hand to keyboard create words that mean as much to those who read my writings as the people who received her letters. That is no small task. But the memory of my grandmother helps me believe that I can do it.

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February 16, 2008

“A Six Year Old with a Notebook”

I honestly believe that writers are born and not made. I don’t think there is any other way to justify the compulsion some of us feel to use the written word in such a way that readers are brought not only into our heads but into our consciousness.

My earliest recollection of viewing myself a writer is as a six year old. I was just learning to write and I sat at my desk at home, forming letters with a pencil in a little red notebook. I strung together letter after letter to form the words that I knew how to spell. I remember proudly showing my mother what I had written and commenting, “I’ll even be able to write whole stories some day.”

Why the memory of that pronouncement has stuck with me to this day I cannot explain. Could a six year old possibly foresee that writing “whole stories” would become a way of life? A way of looking at and absorbing the world so that it can be recreated on a printed page? Maybe so, maybe not.

But I do know that from that point on, writing was and has remained the way that I define both myself and my world. I see stories when I walk the dog and pass the same jogger each day wearing the same strained, determined look on her face. I imagine stories when I sit in a hospital waiting room and hear a doctor ask a family, “Would you like to speak to a priest?” More importantly, I create stories from my own family history. I pull memories from reminiscences heard as a young child, seared into my memory as family lore, such as the story behind the man in my most recent book Who’s Jim Hines?

As a six year old, somehow I knew that this is what I was called to do. And I have never doubted that word.

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