Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My Writing Process - Blog Tour

There’s that old cliche writers have - it's something like, “Life seems to get in the way of writing!” 
I never knew exactly what that meant until the past year or two. This week proved no exception.  Good news:  my tardiness was indeed writing or “writerly” related. Last Thursday (April 10-13) I went to Austin, TX to participate and present at Story Circle Network’s National Conference, Stories from the Heart. ( So much writing, so little time.  But now, on to my belated Blog-Tour post!

April 14, 2014    #MyWritingProcess

     I’m breaking new ground, exploring approaches that are – for me anyway, challenging but intriguing. Today I'm answering four questions on the blog tour, My Writing Process, where writers and authors have been invited to answer the same four questions about their personal writing processes.

     My friend and fellow writer, Tania Pryputniewicz posted about her own work last week. Tania is an amazingly creative, multifaceted writer. She describes herself as a poet and, while the genre might be her first love, the breadth and scope of her poignant words combined with experimental approaches defy categorizing.  Please don’t miss the opportunity to read about Tania’s writing process, as well as some of her incredible essays and posts, by visiting:

What am I 
working on?

     This is our first question – straight forward as a warm-up to the more difficult ones. My greatest challenge in writing is having too many pieces I’m working on rather than feeling “blocked” or unable to conceptualize ideas about which I’m passionate enough to write. I came to non-academic writing purely by chance after earning my Ph.D. in research sociology. Because of that, what I work on at any given moment might be essay or a non-fiction short story in tandem with writing an article or book related to my research interests. 

     Currently, I’m rewriting and editing a collection of short stories – really more like creative non-fiction memoir pieces I've worked on for years. By now, there are twelve – each one at a different level of "doneness." They evolved from my experiences growing up with two parents who were Holocaust survivors so writing some of my stories started out as a creative vehicle for me to make sense out of a world I regarded as threatening and evil.

     Initially, each piece came to me as a stand-alone snippet from my life, usually inspired by moving, unforgettable, or distressing events and conversations. I wasn't aware of any unifying theme and didn't even think about it much until very recently. Once I began editing them - after having neglected these stories for about ten years, two insights hit me smack in the middle of my head! First, I realized that during those passing years, it feels as though my writing evolved tremendously.

     I’ve become much more focused - a more observant writer than I’d been even just a year or two ago; second, my stories’ unifying theme suddenly was surprisingly obvious to me. Even now, I marvel that the theme totally eluded me in the past. Right now I’m in the final editing phase of my short stories. Of course, one of the greatest challenges I think every writer faces is deciding that it’s time to let them go. It's tough to decide to just get the stuff out there already and quit editing! . Honestly, we could edit indefinitely because writers – like their writing, are in a constant state of change and evolution. 

     Now, because of the unifying theme, I'll publish the collection into a book that’s a memoir told through the form of short stories. I’m also working on a “soft sociology” book about decision making processes among mid-life women. By “soft sociology” I mean that the book isn’t overly academic because it’s written to appeal to a broader population, yet it does take an intellectual and academic approach that’s a step beyond the “self-help” genre.

     My new book is based on research plus interviews with women. I’ve interviewed numerous mid-life women, listening to their stories about their regrets in addition to those about their hopes moving forward in their lives. These have been hugely inspirational to my writing, helping me imagine some of their stories as creative fiction pieces.  

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

     Most of my writing conveys the high degree of awareness I had, even as a young child, about society’s disenfranchised – especially un-assimilated immigrants and economically under-privileged.  Those two characteristics seem intertwined so much of the time.  In large part, I think I’m exceptionally qualified to write about experiences from that world because I’ve actually lived in it until, when I was a young teen, my family moved to the USA.

     Truthfully, my stories and experience aren’t entirely unique. There are so many stories, essays and books in this genre out there – those written by other children of survivors. But two obvious characteristics differentiate my work from that of others in my cohort. First, too many writers in the genre try to make light of the nature of secondary post-traumatic stress and its associated loss through the use of humor. Secondly, other writers convey tremendous bitterness and it saturates their work. In my opinion, neither approach works particularly well.

     Sure, of course I’m angered and saddened by all the suffering and loss that was inflicted on my parents. How could I not be?  Who wouldn't be? The fallout of their altered personalities had a huge impact on me and continues to do so in surprising and strange ways daily, especially when I least expect it. On the positive side, it’s precisely these observations and experiences that have proven incredibly conducive to my writing process. Ultimately, they benefit readers.

     I also feel fortunate to have heard my parents’ first-hand accounts, gained tremendous insights from their stamina, then found a medium though which to convey those stories to a larger population. In a sense, my parents' stories and mine meld together and in doing so they have an opportunity to become a part of the public record.

The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival - my mother's story displayed at

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (‎)

Why do I write 
what I do?

     Since I do write in two very different genres – sociology and creative non-fiction, I think there really are only two reasons I write what I do.  First, my academic writing is based on my interests and curiosities about society. I'm always asking the same questions but in different ways. The question drives both my academic work and my creative non-fiction:  What makes populations behave in the ways they do? How could entire countries and continents be so complicit during mass-insanity that overtakes rational thought throughout history? What happens during historical events such a World War II, or segregation in the USA, or slaughters in the name of ethnic cleansing in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East? 

     My interest in these issues increases simultaneously with my age and awareness. I have a very personal relationship to this phenomenon so when I write my short stories – all based on my real life experiences, I hope to provide my readers with a deeper understanding of the long term generational impact of past events. In a way, my non-academic writing is a different version of my sociological pieces. 

Berlin: Memorial to Jews murdered in the Holocaust

How does my writing

process work? 

     I wish I could say that my writing process is systematic, well organized and consistent but it’s not. It is flexible, though. It has to be because I tend to give into my state of mind or moods or constraints of ever day life. If I don’t stay flexible, then I just become frustrated and “blocked” by that frustration.

     What I do have are writing triggers. In other words, a big chunk of my writing starts out inside my head when I’m alone. After that, I commit my interior writing concepts to paper. Usually, while driving or on long walks, concepts come to me – something like stream of consciousness writing that I follow. I always make a point to record a very short prompt about it – sometimes it’s on my phone or on 3 by 5 note-cards I always keep in my pockets. When I do sit down at my desk, 
I’m able to connect back to my concepts through the prompt. 

     I love most music, especially when I’m writing at my desk but I avoid listening to anything during walks. For me, that time is my most creative, time for being inside my head. The other part of my process is that, because I tend to stay up late reading, I take mid-afternoon 15 minute power naps. Thankfully, modern technology has been a huge help here! It seems as though nap time is also a very creative time for me. When something comes to me, I try to record just a brief message to myself so I won’t forget the concept. 

     My surroundings don't need to be quiet in order for me to write but I do find my productivity is best when I’m not in my office and don’t have my computer with me. I’m a big believer in writing by hand on paper, restricting my computer use for after I've gotten my thoughts down. Handwriting on paper keeps my self-editing to a minimum. For me, using a computer is the death-knell to my productivity in terms of self-editing!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Why Do I Write? Or How to Defend A Cliche

Cliches Reconsidered: From Punch Magazine 1885

            That’s the standard question every writer is asked and feels compelled to answer, one about which all writers ultimately do write essays. Sometimes, even after having written such an essay, the writer will revisit reasons for writing with some regularity. But the topic, Why Do I Write, is far from a modern-day quest. It dates back – way, way back in time, possibly even as far back as writing itself does.

            We’ve all read numerous cliché answers. Among them: “I write to discover who I am, to gain insight into myself, to re-create myself, to make sense of the world around me, to understand what I am or to heal from trauma.

            I write – and have written, for so many of the same reasons but I’ve also attempted to write for a host of totally unrelated reasons. Like most writers, the solitary act of writing does help me manage grief, anger, and at times devastating disappointments or what - during the act of writing, seems like unmanageable problems. I’ve written to record my journeys – physical and emotional, as a vehicle by which to see where I’ve been, to assess the place in which I have arrived and as a mechanism to strengthen my resolve about where I’m hoping to go.

            During happy times, although easy to resist writing, I’ve oftem felt compelled to write specifically about the happiness and in great detail. It’s more challenging to write when we're happy. I know it is for me because what I want most is to stay in that moment. Taking time away from the feeling in order to write is a risk that I may not regain that happy moment. But we also lose sight of the benefits to be gained by taking that time. Isn’t it possible that during sadder more difficult times, we’re likely to reread the happier times, reminding ourselves how we arrived at them?

            Sure, these reasons are all clichés of sorts. And sure, most of us throughout the entirety of our educations, have been taught, to avoid those phrases referred to as clichés. We’re convinced that cliches are offensive, tedious, and smack of undeveloped writing skills.

            The reasons we list for writing might be clichés but our answers are totally unique. Our essay answers to “Why Do I Write?” are anything but cliches. Note the irony: Isn’t the question itself but a huge cliche? 

Friday, November 22, 2013

A snippet from my email

My workshop proposal has been accepted by Story Circle Network. Hooray- it's official! I'll be presenting in Austin at the Story Circle Network National Conference in April. 

Dear Marlene:

We are pleased to inform you that your proposed workshop, "When Digital Isn't Real - Fact Finding Offline For Serious Writers" has been chosen for presentation at our conference in April. Congratulations on your selection!

Thanks for helping to make our conference the best ever!

Warm Regards,
Mary Jo Doig
Program Chair

Monday, November 4, 2013

New Workshop Based Upon New Book

My new book, When Digital Isn't Real, evolved out of the various workshops I've conducted over the years, including several with Story Circle Network. All writers need to establish the reliability of their information. But in order to keep readers interested and present credible content, they also must enhance their work by providing a high level of verisimilitude.

This is the outside. Now go take a look at the inside!

You're probably thinking that anything and everything you could possibly need for your craft is online, right? True, so much is available online and in digital format but (and it's a very big but) what about all that incredibly rich, unique, and "never-to-make-its way into the digital world" material? What about all the often overlooked sources for information and facts such as one-on-one interviews, visits to geographic locations, rummaging through scrapbooks, recipe collections, and snooping around in closets and in family photo albums?

Well, you get where I'm going with all this! My new book deals with precisely these points and more. And my forthcoming workshop will show attendees exactly how to decide what information and details they need, where to look in the real, non-digital world, and what unconventional sources are available.

if you can't join me in Austin,  you can still buy a copy of When Digital Isn't Real. It's available in both print and as a Kindle.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Berlin - Surprises Abound

Photo via flickr- ERmes Vatali
There’s a tiny, little known museum in Berlin, Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt. During World War II and before, it had been a brush factory. Its owner, Otto Weidt, became increasingly interested in creating a safe work environment for visually impaired, blind and deaf workers. It was a workshop in which they were given the opportunity to be productive and remain economically independent. The reason for his interest: Otto Weidt gradually was losing his own eye sight. Visiting this unusual, out of the way spot was one of the highlights of the week for all the surprises it held.

     After the climb up a narrow, creaky flight of wooden steps, I opened the door to the museum’s small entry. It had been pouring rain through out the morning and our group was drenched. The desk clerk greeted us pleasantly in German, asking us to leave  our wet coats and umbrellas in the entry to prevent water damage to the exhibits. The soft spoken man was the security guard / maintenance staff / sales clerk / resident historian and basically filled every position imaginable at this museum.

     He had an amazing smile, pleasant disposition, but had spoken to us in German. “He’s amazing!” I whispered to our tour leader. “I’d so love to take his photo. Do you think he’d mind?”

     “Mind? Are you kidding?" our group leader replied. "He’d absolutely love it, just ask him. His English is perfect and actually he competes in the International Beard and Mustache Competition. You know, he once won third place and is super proud of this!”

     This museum is a must-visit tribute to a German citizen, a non-Jewish hero. While reading about the museum, I learned that its administered by the German Resistance Memorial Centre Foundation - an organization developed as a result of a student project.   Otto Weidt’s story is told through the use of archival photos and in transcripts from interviews conducted with some of those he had saved. The mustache man enriched an already enriching experience. 

     During World War II, the visually impaired brush and broom manufacturer, Otto Weidt,  employed quite a number of Jews in the small factory still located at Rosenthaler 39. As the Nazi party rose to power, Weidt worked tirelessly to protect his blind and deaf employees from deportation to concentration camps. He bribed the Gestapo, falsified documents, and ultimately hid a family behind a backless cupboard in his shop’s workroom.

     Hesitantly, I approached his desk. Apologetically I spoke up. “Sir, excuse me but would you mind if I took a photo of you? My friends in the USA would find your mustache amazing. I know I sure do!”

     “It would be my honor." He said in perfect, accent free English. "This is a good place for me to work. Here, in a brush factory, right? And even more funny, I’m Jewish! Fortunately, I’m not yet blind. I must say though that some people are certain I’m deaf!”

     The encounter was a bigger surprise than I was prepared for that day. And thanks to the man with the award-winning mustache, I learned much more about Mr. Weidt’s brushes, the empoyees he saved and about “mustache man” himself. His own parents had fled Berlin, went to Israel (then Palestine) and remained there. The Israeli- born competitive mustache grower returned to live in Berlin after completing college.  


Saturday, November 2, 2013

Seeing Things Anew

Grim reminder of my own parents' experiences listed here - 3 out of these twelve.
Far too many others not even listed: Auschwitz, Ravensbruck & Dachau.
     Sometimes a break from blogging is a good thing. My break has been so long, I almost forgot how to post new content - not the writing part but the actual mechanics! Somewhat scary. Could this be a case of "use it or lose it?"

     The past three months have been insanely hectic. August was devoted to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico where I presented and conducted one-on-one consults for the AROHO Conference. I returned to Chicago in September and a two week trip to Berlin with University of Chicago's Graham School, and a visit to Santa Cruz, CA.

     There was the frenzy of writing and submitting my proposal to present at the Story Circle Network National Conference in Austin, TX., publication of my new book, When Digital Isn't Real followed by a total overhaul of the same just one week after it was released. Oh, I forgot to mention the Kindle Edition as well.

     These are some of the topics about which I'll be posting during the coming weeks. And there are also other activities; writing a few guest posts, providing my "two cents" of feedback on some fellow writers' books, my activities as a member of University of Chicago's Visiting Committee to the Graduate Division of the Social Sciences, and working on my forthcoming short story collection.

     So what about all those photos I'm eager to post and write about?  Some are more emotionally packed than others, but first things first. I've posted a photo of one of the intense moments for me but coming to grips with all this proved to be a positive and valuable experience.

Please check back this week for new content!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

I am a Berliner!

Hi I'm in Berlin right now on an trip with University of Chicago Graham School. 
Tell you all about it when I get back.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Out on the bookshelves now: Marlene's new Reference Guide, When Digital Isn't Real

Much Needed Resource For Writers—A Reference Guide!

Do you think all the information you need can be found online? Think again! Not all the facts you need to ensure accuracy in your writing is online. And even information that's made its way online may not be all that accurate. The magnitude of online information, accessed at lightening fast speed, has eroded our beliefs in the importance of hard-copy references. Worse, too many writers are losing their research skills. In order to conduct non-digital research, writers need the skills to identify data sources but moreover, knowing how and where to find them, then deciding which ones to use, is both critical and daunting. Every writer who cares about the accuracy of his or her written work needs this book!


Friday, June 14, 2013

Where's Mangia Monday been?

 "Mangia Monday" on this blog - a series of yummy recipes and tips for getting the most out of your food dollars and having the least to waste. 


Have a Look!  Here's where you'll now find all the recipes, essays, and great tips for getting the most out of your food. Check in with this blog for updates and news about all my writing, publications, workshops and presentations but from now on all the food related fun will be "in residence" at Another Day Gourmet. Thanks and happy cooking!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Witnessing Diversity, Embracing Community

This past Saturday, I attended both a bat- and bar-mitzvah in Washington, D.C., the only reason for my trip to the district. But while in our nation's capital, I decided to take advantage of a few unscheduled hours in which to conduct historical research at the USHMM - The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Friday afternoon I devoted 3 hours to my research.

But, on Saturday, sitting in the synagogue's sanctuary, the significance of the two events - my Holocaust research and the bat mitzvah's unique celebratory character thoroughly overwhelmed me.

The young lady having her bat mitzvah is our close friends' daughter -- I'll refer to her  as Julia Jia Li Davis. The young man becoming a "bar mitzvah," Jordan David Martínez-Goldberg, shared the Dias and planning of the service with Julia.
She is Chinese. He is bi-racial Jewish-Dominican, and according to one aunt, also has some Peruvian origins. The service was simultaneously amazing, encouraging, and beautiful. But beyond its diversity -- and vastly more important, was the sense of community and hope it evoked that so thoroughly overwhelmed us all. 

I scanned the sanctuary.  It was impossible not to notice that almost everyone there was teary-eyed and intensely moved. It wasn't simply the ethnic, racial, national, and cultural diversity that gave us pause but rather the tremendous significance of the scene and of our good fortune to be a part of it. The point was lost on no one! 
It was also the epitome of our American ethos. It's one of the greatest and most enduring of America's values. 
More than a century ago, the United States of America was referred to as the  "great melting-pot," a term derived from a play by Israel Zangwill. First performed in 1908, the story depicts difficulties encountered by a Russian-Jewish immigrant family named the Quixanos. 

The protagonist and hero, David Quixano, survived a pogrom that killed both his mother and sister -- an over-whelming horror he constantly struggles to put behind him.
David creates an "American Symphony" -- his goal is to envision a society free from ethnic divisions and hatred rather than to remember his tragic past.

David proclaims, "America is God's crucible, the great melting-pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming... Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians." He is overcome with emotion by his vision and shouts, "Into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American!"
Given the play's historical context, Zangwill's main character's proclamation is truer and more evident in contemporary America than it was when he wrote it in 1908. Today, America is in a constant state of social and demographic flux, adapting and embracing its diversity followed by yet more growth, change and diversity.
The continuous changing "face" of America benefits us all, helping us evolve into a vastly more compassionate and humane society.
This special bat mitzvah followed my afternoon at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's 5th floor where I scanned miles of footage in the Steven Spielberg Film Archives -- footage that documented Nazi era atrocities.

Regardless of what we think we know about events that occurred during those very dark Holocaust years, seeing raw film footage taken from news reels of the time is a brutally sobering experience. 

 I'm still trying to comprehend the amazing contrast between what I saw  documenting the inhumane violence inflicted upon millions of human beings simply because of their cultural, religious, and racial differences and the wonderful encouraging sense of community that permeated the entire bat mitzvah weekend I was so fortunate to be a part of!