Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What is Your Why?

by Susan

Maybe she should have asked me after I'd had another cup 
of coffee. 
When I was at the Wyoming Library Association conference this year, I walked into a session first thing in the morning, bleary-eyed and wondering whether there was enough coffee in Colombia to salvage the morning.

The presenter handed me an adhesive name badge with the words, "What is your why?" in red letters at the top. She asked me, what is your passion? Why do you get up and go to work in the morning?

Lately I've been joking that I hate my job with the fiery passion of a thousand blazing suns*, so my first response was, "Because I like to eat?"

But as I sat there a few minutes it dawned on me the common thread as to why I write and why I chose librarianship: stories matter.

Let's say that a little louder... in parentheses.... capital letters.... quotated....


THIS is my why. Stories matter, YOUR stories matter. Novels, short stories, memoir, history -- you name it. The stories we write, the stories we tell weave us all together in a shared experience. 

With caffeine finally taking effect and cynicism tossed aside for the moment, I proudly wrote "Stories Matter" on the nametag and wore it the rest of the day.

Which brings me back to the question: What is your why? Why do you get up and write? What drives you to it? Writing is a lonely and often unrewarding (at least financially) endeavor. Why do you do it?

We want to know! Please share in the comments: What is your why?

*For the record, it's a good job. I'd just rather be writing.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


post by Lynn

Sshhh! Don’t talk about it.

I was in a memoir writing group once with a fellow who wrote really good stuff during the free writes, in response to writing prompts. Afterwards, he’d read out loud what he had written and say “I didn’t have time to write the whole story.” Then he would proceed to tell us the rest of it.

We always told him to write the story, that it was a good story and he could publish it if he wrote it all down. But somehow, he never did. He had lots of stories started, but he didn’t finish them. Or maybe, in his head, he had finished them, because he had told us the whole story.

Maybe this is why so many writers don’t share their first drafts with anyone or talk about their works-in-progress.

Margaret Atwood flat-out said, “I never talk about books I’m writing.” Ray Bradbury said, “Don’t talk about it. Write.”

Never? Don’t talk about any aspect of writing? Really?

Marshall J. Cook, in Freeing Your Creativity:A Writer’s Guide, says it’s a matter of order. 

“In the idea-gathering stage, you should let everybody know what you’re working on. They’ll contribute materials for the mental composting that helps you develop possibilities… as the idea gets ready to take specific shape and form, you must protect it from the corrosive effect your words could have on it. Your imp wants to tell the story… and does so strictly for the joy of the telling. If you let it blab the story now, the imp may lose all interest in telling it again, on paper, later. … Your first telling will likely be your best telling in terms of the richness of your invention. Save that first telling for putting words on paper."

Oh, it’s a two part deal, is it?

1. Part One: gathering and composting phase. Feel free to throw it out to your friends that you are working on a story that deals with shamans, or guinea pigs, or Stonehenge, or whatever. Let them give you the benefit of their knowledge and experience with those things. You might learn something, get a lead, or find out that unbeknownst to you your good friend has a fetish about rodents that, frankly, you wish you hadn’t learned about.

2. Part Two: the story unfolds. This part should happen in two places: in your head and on the page. Nothing should come out of your mouth.

Ernest Hemingway also divided it in two, in a 1958 Paris Review interview, when he told George Plimpton:
“Though there is one part of writing that is solid and you do it no harm by talking about it, the other is fragile, and if you talk about it, the structure cracks and you have nothing."

There is a lot of good discussion on this anti-discussion topic on the web, like in this New York Times article: “Don’t Ask What I’m Writing” by Mark Slouka. And this one by Steven Pressfield titled, “Don’t Talk About It.”

But personally I think Robert Frost said it best and briefest:

“Talking is a hydrant in the yard and writing is a faucet upstairs in the house. Opening the first takes the pressure off the second.” 

As for me, I’ll discuss writing—the art and craft of it—as much as you want. And if you have any good information on rattlesnakes, let me know. But don’t ask me about my stories.

I’m not talkin’.

So, maybe this no-talking thing is a bunch of hooey. What do you think? Go over your stories with a friend or clam up?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Professionalism with Cat Urbigkit

Reflections On Conferences (Part 2)
by Cat Urbigkit

Social media posts help to build your brand --
that is, your reputation.
Being professional in how you present yourself is an important part of a writer’s career. That means studying industry resources to be sure you are submitting work to a house that accepts the genre you create. It means following submissions guidelines and presenting only polished work, in standard industry format, without colored paper or other attention-getting gimmicks, and accompanied by a flawless cover letter (free of typos and submitted to the correctly spelled name).

There is much talk about "branding" for writers and other creators, but dear reader, you are not a Disney character. What branding really means is reputation. Make sure your reputation is that of a professional.

It's great that you are involved in social media - building your brand are you? Take a look at what you are putting out there for the world to see. Is it nothing but "buy my book, buy my book?" That's not social - that's ego-centered promotion. Post about current events that pertain to your books, your creative process, or give glimpses into your life to help your social media contacts get to know you better, mentioning your books every now and then, perhaps as you have speaking and signing events, or experience creative milestones. ("Yaay, chapter one finished," "Ready to tackle the revision process on this tiger of a manuscript.") Be sure your social media is just that - social. You are sharing your life, your process, and your work. Make it professional and interactive. Give your contacts a reason to follow you, a reason to care, a reason to take time from their own busy days to see what's happening in your world.

Alexandra Penfold of Upstart Crow Literary ran through a list of things “no-no’s” for authors. She told stories of authors submitting a query or manuscript over the weekend, resubmitting “just in case” the first email wasn’t received, and then calling the office a few days later to confirm. Slow down, and have patience, Penfold recommends. And it’s a bad idea to send a "gift" when presenting an unsolicited manuscript to someone who does not know you. Yes, even chocolates. Would you want to eat chocolates sent in the mail from someone you don't know?

Alessandra Balzer of HarperCollins reminds us to treat others as we wish to be treated. That means conducting yourself with professionalism, and to be sure that professionalism is apparent when engaging in social media. Political, religious, and other rants - don't do it. Don't complain about your publishing house, editor, cover choice, etc., on writer's forums. I believe this is called shooting yourself in the foot. You are hurting yourself.

If you have an agent or editor considering your work, be assured they will Google you. If they don't find anything, that's okay. Finding nothing is preferable to finding content that casts you in a negative light. If they find upbeat and engaging content, good on you! You're doing it right.

Your public persona should be a reflection of the seriousness of your commitment to craft. Literary agent Erin Murphy noted in dealing with potential clients, she likes to see indications that the author is grounded, confident, and open.

Cat Urbigkit is a full-time author, photographer, and sheep herder in western Wyoming. She writes nonfiction books for children and adults. Her 10th book, When Man Becomes Prey, has been released this month by Lyons Press.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Making the Most of Conferences with Cat Urbigkit

Reflections On Conferences (Part 1)
by Cat Urbigkit

You register for a writing conference, polish that work in progress, pack your bags, and off you go. Writers and illustrators spend much of their time alone in the creative process, so attending a conference requires a mental change - you are about to be in the midst of a crowd of hundreds, or in my case, more than 1,200 conference attendees from 20 countries. I write this post from the balcony of the Los Angeles hotel in which I have spent the last week, taking a few moments to reflect at the closing of the Society Of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators 2014 conference.

Besides the time-tested advice of wearing comfortable shoes and keeping hydrated, I've another addition: Be professional. I attended several sessions instructed by agent Steven Malk of Writers House Literary Agency. At times in an understated way, and other times explicitly, Malk repeatedly returned to this theme as he answered questions from those aspiring to be published. It doesn't matter whether you are prepublished or have 10 books in your publishing stable, if you are serious about tending to your creative career – and I'm assuming that if you have registered for a conference, you are indeed serious – be professional in how you present yourself: in person; in your art portfolio; in social media; and in your written correspondence.

Dress appropriately for conferences – make sure you won't regret your wardrobe choice if you do happen to end up sharing an elevator with an editor, agent, or author that you admire. In your creative submission, or in a chance personal meeting, you have no second chance to make a good first impression, as Malk reminded attendees at this year's conference.

We may dream of making a connection with an agent or editor at a conference. It happens for some, but this shouldn't be the sole criterion for conference success. It didn't happen for me at this conference, and I'm okay with that. I watched multitudes of eager conference attendees surge forward to meet the speakers after each presentation and decided not to participate. The urge was not there for me. I watched one panelist (who shall remain unnamed) as she struggled to keep her eyes open, clearly suffering from the exhaustion of the grueling conference schedule, as she was engulfed by a sea of faces eager to make that contact with her. I suspected what she needed was a break, perhaps a moment outside in the California sunshine - but she graciously tried to smile as she greeted each new face.

All is not lost by foregoing that face-to-face with publishing pros at a conference. By watching and listening to the editors and agents, you will observe how they conduct themselves professionally (their own "branding"), learn what kinds of projects they adore and abhor, and even glean insights to their more personal tastes. Tidbits I learned from this conference included:

  • one editor has loved horses since childhood;
  • one agent doubts that certain classic children's books would do well in today's market; and 
  • a second agent reads classics for personal pleasure, and seeks fresh versions for today's marketplace.

These were completely different viewpoints on items that aren't included on their websites or revealed in interviews, but will be an important factor as I consider potential submissions in the future.

While attending a conference, remember that you are fortunate enough to be surrounded by a group of people who share your interests. I recommend a return to playground rules.

  • Be friendly. Say hello to the person sitting next to you, strike up conversations with those standing in line behind you - ask them what they are working on, what sessions they attended. 
  • Be kind, even helpful. Hold the elevator for someone, or decline from getting on one that's already packed.
  • Smile. It's always nice to see a friendly face.
  • Be courteous and respectful, whether you are dealing with a publishing professional, or your neighbor.
  • Play nice. We're all in this together.

Check back on Friday for part 2.

Cat Urbigkit is a full-time author, photographer, and sheep herder in western Wyoming. She writes nonfiction books for children and adults. Her 10th book, When Man Becomes Prey, was released this month by Lyons Press.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


guest post by Judy Schulz

On one of those lovely Wyoming late afternoons when the temperatures were welcoming, the breezes fluttered the leaves of the trees allowing the sunlight to flicker and sparkle. My nine-year-old granddaughter, Danielle, spiraled around the gathered clan and announced, “I’m a Triple Threat!”

“A triple threat?” I asked. “You are?”

“Yes,” she expounded, “I’m a dancer and an actor and a singer.” Several years of multiple lessons and she was indeed blooming into remarkable performance quality in dance. And Danielle had spent summer weeks at the local community theatre in children’s performance classes. It seems she’s always been able to express herself from the moment we watched her eyes open on the day she was born. That summer day, though, she’d been notified of her acceptance into All City Children’s Choir, a prestigious audition choir in Cheyenne, hence the “Singer” category.

Without a thought, I said, “Well, I’m a singer and an actor and a writer.” I surprised myself with the last category as writing is a new art for me and the declaration magnified the reality that I truly acknowledge even to myself that I am a writer.

Having announced my own triple threat, I began to examine the concept of creativity in the arts. If Danielle and I are artists in multiple areas, how is that creativity related? Or is it? In February I finished my first manuscript, a creative nonfiction piece about my parents’ first year of marriage. They were separated all but 13 days of that time and I used their hundreds of letters, telegrams, and cards to create a story of that period. When I finished the work, I wept. It felt wonderful—release, euphoria, and a bit of “Oh dear, what do I do now?”

It was like the release and euphoria after the Cheyenne Chamber Singers, in which I sing alto among 36 dedicated vocalists, finished performing Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, the complete work in Russian with a cantor from the Greek Orthodox Church at the pulpit of the magnificent St. Mary’s Cathedral.

It was like the release and euphoria of experiencing a standing ovation as I came forward in the curtain call for Driving Miss Daisy at the Cheyenne Little Theatre. Hmmm,..euphoria, release, endorphins of the highest order. The end result was the same for all three art forms.

There are other similarities as well. I have come to believe that artists all have a homogenous, identifiable goal. That is to create a scene for an audience, something the artist feels about a place and recreates for others to experience.

While touring the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was fortunate to view an exhibit of paintings by O’Keeffe and photography by Ansel Adams. The subjects of both artists originated in Hawaii where on separate occasions O’Keeffe and Adams did contract work on the Big Island. Hung side by side, a similar scene was depicted through the eyes of the artists and we were pulled into them as if familiar with it ourselves. It mattered not a whit that one was a watercolor and one a sepia photo. The effect was immediate and universal. We were there because the artists had taken us there.

As Jason Weiss writes, “It’s an art form and all art is meant to affect the emotions of its viewers or listeners.”

And it does. Art just uses different mediums to convey those effects. In acting, the playwright uses the actor’s voice and body to convey the moment and connect with the audience. In choral performance, the composer gives his music and words to the singer who uses voice and expression to carry the scene into the ears and eyes of the patrons. In writing, the author has only her words. They stand alone. She’s a soloist. And the scenes connect and live in the reader’s mind and heart, sometimes forever.

Later in the summer, Danielle pirouetted on the Civic Center stage. Her tutu spread from her waist like stiffened sea foam, her long hair bound in a traditional rolled topknot shining gold in the lights. Like an emerging Pavlova, she warmed us with her upturned reddened lips and matched it with the grace of her young, lithe body portraying clearly the winged creature in Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie Overture.”

Everything in creation has its appointed painter or poet and remains in bondage like a princess in the fairy tale ‘til its appropriate liberator comes to set it free.
 --Ralph Waldo Emerson
And may it be so.


Judith Schulz retired from teaching high school English in 2008 and began her first creative writing pieces in 2009.  Although her major work has been in creative nonfiction, a class with poet Kristin Abraham inspired her to venture into poetry.  Subject matter arises easily from her almost 50 years of marriage and the shared raising of four sons.  She also remains creatively active in community theater and vocal performing groups and supports art in all its inspiring forms.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

At the Cabin: A Tranquil Writer's Retreat Produces Creativity with Gayle Irwin

by Gayle M. Irwin

Gayle at her cabin.
Solace reverberates, stillness the prevailing sound. No traffic noise, no construction racket, not even the ring of the telephone. Although only a 20-minute drive from my house in town, my woodland hideaway seems hours from the barrage of droning disruptions. This peaceful parcel of timberland has become my writing retreat.

Lodgepole pines stretch their gray trunks heavenward like necks of giraffes. The trees tower above the 12x40 foot wood-sided cabin, offering shade from the searing sun, its warm rays rife at the 8,000-foot elevation. Thoreau had his Walden's Pond; I have my Peaceable Kingdom, three+ acres of Rocky Mountain forest at the top of Casper Mountain. Although other cabins are visible through the lacy lodgepole branches, rarely is my solace disturbed, for other cabin owners don't frequent their private paradises as I do mine – that truth adds to the quaking quiet.

For more than five years, I've spent weekends and weekday evenings surrounded by nature's splendor: green-suited hummingbirds darting through the still sky; tawny-eared mule deer sauntering on dry-needled, sparsely-grassed ground; auburn-shirted pine squirrels chattering from overhead tree branches, and heavy-headed yellow daisies yawning in the early-morning light.

The rescue cocker  spaniels, Mary (in chair)
and Cody, keep Gayle company.
It is during that tranquil dawn that I create stories, sitting at my laptop that's powered by either its own battery or the solar panels connected by a cluster of marine-celled batteries. The collection also lights the paneled cabin. Each form of energy helps me produce chapters of books or develop feature articles for magazines and newspapers. Although I can write at my home office in town, the visits to the cabin rejuvenate and revive my creativity, priming, prompting, and pumping the flow of words. Amidst the solitude, I've written two full books and partially-written two others, as well as countless magazine articles, newspaper stories, and blog posts. Sometimes my musings are generated in the cabin itself, other times sitting under the shade of those giant lodgepoles, or while basking in the embrace of the screened porch. The twittering of birds, winging of butterflies, and wafting of a breeze in the tree tops tug at the tendrils of my brain and sing softly amid the crevices of my heart, culminating in a creativity that soars from my soul.

Each visit, each overnight, renders words on the page that spill forth like warm water fountains in Yellowstone, frothing and steaming to be freed from their confines. The words, whether paragraphs on a computer screen or sentences in a lined composition notebook, produce a satisfactory, albeit edit-able piece; like an appetite satiated, I come away from my cabin experience appeased. What bursts forth may not be my most profound work, but it is palatable, and I later trim the fat or add more flavoring.

Swallowtail butterfly on arrowleaf phlox.
I am inspired by my my mountain property, much as Laura Ingalls Wilder was by her surroundings, whether it was Rocky Ridge Farm in Missouri or the great plains of the Dakotas. That inspired location encourages writings that will, I hope, uplift readers of my words. Whether the product is a book about my dog that helps children overcome an adversity in their lives, a story that teaches an environmental lesson about the forest or the creatures living on the plains, or an article with appropriate verbiage to encourage people who are down on themselves, the excitement I feel when I sit across from my laptop in the tranquility of my mountain acreage cascades through my mind and spirit. For me, tranquility equals creativity and productivity.

Laura had her Little House on the Prairie and Little House in the Big Woods. I have a combination – my Little Cabin in the Tall Woods of the Great Plains. With woodstove billowing even in mid-summer and lantern or solar light producing a soft glow amid snoring dogs and creaking crickets, a new paragraph is birthed and a new idea illuminated like the light surrounding me. At the cabin in the forest atop the mountain my senses are awakened from their dull sleepiness and my writings spring forth from their hibernation, taking flight like woodland songbirds then perching in the place they are meant to inhabit.

Susan chimes in...
What a beautiful place to write, and what a connection Gayle clearly has to her cabin. Something about getting out in nature can really free us to write. I know when I took a weekend in Esterbrook it jarred a lot of words loose. If you don't have your own cabin, make a date with the outdoors. Treat yourself to a weekend away someplace beautiful. Your notebooks will thank you.


Gayle M. Irwin, Casper, is a freelance writer and the author of five inspirational dog books. These include three books for children and two devotional-style books for families. She's written short stories that are part of five different Chicken Soup for the Soul books, including the latest dog book, The Dog Did What? She writes regularly for Our Town Casper magazine, a monthly publication, and for the weekly Casper Journal newspaper. Her stories and columns also appear in the Douglas Budget and River Press newspapers, and she has contributed writings to Creation Illustrated, WREN, and Crossroads magazines.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


post by Lynn

I did a search on Pinterest for the phrase "writer's block" and up popped lots of "pins" about this pesky aspect of the writing process. I quit counting at 450. Obviously "writer's block" is the metaphor of choice for many writers.

Not me. Not any more.

I believe that the way you visualize a thing affects how you feel about it. When I hear "writer’s block," I picture a big concrete box, or a massive wall--something solid and insurmountable. So I asked myself, do I really want to look at this slow-downed feeling I sometimes get as an almost-insurmountable block? Nah. I want to choose something more permeable and less permanent. Otherwise, I’ll psych myself out and quit writing.

Lately, my favorite metaphor for this phenomenon is a speed bump. Think about it. What are you being asked to do when you approach a speed bump? Slow down, and look around. Are there pedestrians crossing the parking lot? Is there a stop sign ahead? There’s a reason you need to slow down, because there's something you need to be aware of.

In one of my works-in-progress (fiction) I recently reached a fizzle-out moment. After a spurt of panic in my gut, I told myself to chill. I visualized a speed bump. I slowed down. I re-read my latest pages and asked: what do I need to be aware of? It dawned on me that I still had not zeroed in on a precise point of view. I was all over the place in third person, with some omniscient undertones in one part.

So I have been reading my craft books and, with this particular story in mind, revisiting all the nuances of third person. I did a writing exercise suggested in one of the books.

Now that I am on firmer footing (multiple third person, medium distance) with the issue, I feel tugged back to my story. The energy is returning. I can speed up now.

What if I hadn’t hit the speed bump? My point of view would have continued to zigzag, and I would have reached the end and had to go back and do a major clean-up. Not the end of the world—I’m sure I’ll have plenty of revision to do when I reach that point. But I am GRATEFUL that I hit the speed bump when I did. It caught my attention and I made a change.

So I offer to you this suggestion—when the writing stops flowing:

1. Slow down
2. Look around
3. Ask yourself: What do I need to be aware of?

Or, you can visualize a big block if that still works for you. It's your process! :-)


Check out Writing Wyoming's Pinterest account. We have compiled lots of valuable links to information in the following categories:

Writing Prompts; Wyoming Writers and Poets; Writing Life; Writing Advice; Writing Events and Opportunities; Books on Writing; Creativity; Poetry; The Business of Writing; and even one called Did You Know This About Wyoming?