Like Iron Sharpening Iron: The Power of Critique Groups

My hand trembled the first time I distributed my one-page poem to my critique group. The reader to my right launched into the first stanza with gentle enthusiasm. A strange feeling came over me when I heard my words tumble out of her lips. My poem described a childhood memory and while she read, I felt overcome with sentiment. A tear slid down my cheek. Embarrassed, I lowered my head, fumbled through my purse for a Kleenex, and hoped no one noticed. Only one hundred twenty words, the last line came quickly.

Then, the members of the group picked up their pens and began scribbling comments. I squirmed in my seat and wished I were somewhere far away, anywhere but here. What made me think I could ever write? I tried not to make eye contact with these seasoned writers and dreaded their remarks.

One by one each member finished and smiled in my direction. The leader signaled the person on my left to begin. He looked me directly in the eye. “A good poem takes the reader to a new place, and you have succeeded to do that here.”

I’ll never forget those words. Relief washed over me from my head to my feet. As each member continued to share their reactions to my work, I discovered something I didn’t know. I am a writer after all.

I have participated in Word Weavers critique groups since 2013. Over the years this community of writers has greatly influenced me. When writers share their work with others, they learn how to better communicate with an audience. Mistakes can be caught through the process of hearing someone else read your work aloud. We refer to this as a “cold read.” The quiet time after the reading gives each member an opportunity to evaluate the degree to which the author achieved his or her purpose. The final part of the critique involves verbal suggestions for improvement, but not at the risk of discouraging the author.

The “sandwich method” of layering criticism between two compliments nourishes a writer’s growth. I can testify to the effectiveness, because over the years I have published numerous poems, an article for a children’s magazine, and two children’s chapter books. Fallen Leaves is the title of the first poem I ever submitted for critique.

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17 ) This verse applies to critique groups. Writers become more efficient through interactions with other writers. Most authors reference those who have influenced their work in the acknowledgements section of their books.

Word Weavers began in the Orlando area in 1997. Their mission is to help members find their unique voice and raise their writing to a publishable level. This is accomplished through Christian community, critiques, and conferences. Word Weavers offers in-person and online groups.

If you live in the Orlando area, stop by our booth at the Longwood Arts Festival this weekend. Eight members of Orlando Word Weavers will be selling and signing their books. If you are a writer, we’d love to meet you and encourage you on your writing journey.

America’s Supply Chain Disruption

I’m sure by this time you may have been affected by the disruption in our country’s supply chain. If not, you could be affected, since the news media predicts shortages of toys, Christmas decorations, and turkeys for the upcoming holidays. Unfortunately these predictions often contribute to hoarding which increases the problem and perpetuates the cycle.

Even so, the shortages are real. Who is to blame for the problem? The crisis is a result of Covid-19 disruptions paired with an increased demand for goods. Yes, Covid-19. The gift that keeps on giving. (Or taking… depending on how you look at things.)

I need a new pair of athletic shoes. I like to try on shoes before I buy them, so I shopped at a local sporting goods store. I found a pair in my size, but I didn’t like the color. The salesperson checked the warehouse inventory and told me I was in luck. The warehouse had one pair in stock to fit my size in the color I wanted. I paid for the shoes at the checkout and was told to expect my delivery in two to seven days.

To my delight the package arrived in two days! I tore open the outer wrapping, eager to see my purchase. When I took the shoes out of the box, my excitement changed to shock. The left and right shoe were different sizes. On closer examination I realized size wasn’t the only issue. Each shoe was a different style. But I did get something I wanted. Both shoes were black and white.

The moral of the story: “If the shoes don’t match, don’t wear them.” The next day I returned the mismatched pair to the store.

The manager shook her head. “Someone sure made a big mistake.” She apologized and refunded my money. Consequently my search continues.

I admit for most of my life I’ve been spoiled by the abundance of material goods our wonderful supply chain has supplied. The supply chain crisis is something new to all of us. In the midst of everything, let’s try to not let our patience grow short as well.

How about you? Are you keeping your cool in the midst of the shortages? Leave a comment. You can cry on my shoulder. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m a good listener.

The Vacancy

Hold the shell to your ear.

You can hear the sound of the surf

Echo deep within.

Something lived here once.

It moved out

Having outgrown the small dwelling.

It moved on

In search of breathing room.

No one knows where it lives now.

Someone lived here once.

The pencil lines on the bedroom wall

Show the heights of a child

Through the years.

She moved out

Having outgrown the confines of this space.

She moved on

In search of breathing room.

And I hope someone knows

Where she is now.

Whatever Things Are Lovely…

Have you ever had a night when your sleep was interrupted? Last night our smoke alarm began to chirp at one a.m. We solved that little problem and then Buddy, our dog, whined nonstop from his crate. Although I eventually drifted off to dreamland… morning came sooner than I would have liked.

I stumbled into the kitchen feeling grouchy and desperate for coffee. After my first cup, I opened my book of devotions to this verse of scripture:

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:8

I admit, considering my rough night of little sleep, I couldn’t immediately think of much loveliness in the world. In fact the world appears to be a very broken place. Yet, the bible directs us to search for those things which are excellent or praiseworthy as if we were searching for treasure. And when we unearth something lovely, we are to praise God for it. Furthermore, telling people about our discoveries helps them find beauty and meaning in their lives.

Suddenly I remembered an incident which happened at a recent book signing. A man approached our table and looked at Buddy with adoring eyes. The stranger reached into his wallet and handed me a twenty dollar bill. He said, “Please give a book set to any child you wish.” Then he walked away.

I was amazed at his generosity. Soon, a family came by with four young children. Their eyes widened in surprise when I told them they could have a set of books for free.

To me, this was a good example of something praiseworthy. I thanked God for the stranger’s generosity and decided to share the incident with you. Loveliness is not far from any of us. May you find beauty and meaning in your life today.

Ruffled Feathers

Nudged out of my comfort zone

I open one eye,

turn my head

and wonder,

what just happened?

Beneath my plump bottom

something stirred my nest

calling me out of my cozy cradle to arise.

Standing on two feet

I see the great emptiness

where I have never gone.

My Father directs me to stretch my wings.

Then comes the push!

I flap and flutter through space

gasping with surprise when

I plummet.

Soon I hear the brush of his pinions.

My Father is near.

He swoops down

catches me on his wings

and carries me until I’m ready

to fly again.

This poem was inspired by Deuteronomy 32:11. Like an eagle with its young, we can count on the Holy Spirit to call us out of our comfort zone in order to accomplish God’s will. Yet, our heavenly Father does not leave us alone. He carries us when we feel weary or inadequate for the task.

Cruising the St. Johns River

Would you agree 2021 seems a lot like 2020? The more stressful our lives become, the more we need to take time to relax. Even a three hour get-away can work wonders. My recent trip on a St. Johns riverboat increased my awareness of the soothing effect of water. Did you know contact with water can help people feel happier, calmer, and more creative? Hmm… maybe that’s why we get some of our best ideas in the shower.

Some rivers are known for their length, others for their exciting rapids. The St. Johns River boasts of neither. However, it holds the title of the laziest river in the world. Remember your elementary science classes? Water flows along the path of least resistance. In Florida the path of less resistance is found between Indian River County in the south and Jacksonville in the north. The St. Johns is twenty seven feet higher at its source compared to its mouth. This slow moving river drops one inch per mile over the course of three hundred ten miles. No wonder white water rafters look elsewhere for thrills.

In spite of its laziness, throughout history the St. Johns has given rise to an abundance of activity. The river was one of the earliest routes used by Europeans to explore Florida. During the Civil War, the Union Navy operated steamboats up and down the river to carry out attacks on Confederate forts. After the war, riverboats carried wealthy tourists south for fun in the sun. Throughout the nineteenth century paddle wheelers moved produce from Florida farms to northern states.

Today, the Barbara Lee is the only authentic riverboat sailing the St. Johns River. The ship was built in 1986 and refurbished in 2012. Unlike the steamboats of the past, the Barbara Lee uses diesel engines to turn the massive paddle wheels.

We boarded the Barbara Lee at its port in Sanford for a lunch cruise. (By the way, the dining room is air-conditioned.) The food tastes great and the service is superb. Above the dining room, we relaxed on the deck and marveled at the natural beauty of the river.

Standing on the deck, I felt miles away from the problems of the world. Rivers seem so sure of themselves. They have no doubt they will reach their destination. I felt linked with nature, connected to the past, and renewed in my spirit.

Herb and I loved our trip on the Barbara Lee.

Travelers looking for alligators may want to select an evening cruise. The water temperature averages eighty-five degrees in August. Our guide told us during the summer the gators seek cooler temperatures at the bottom of the river. At night the reptiles are more active. When the gators swim across the surface of the water their eyes cast an eerie glow. How spooky!

Click here to learn about the many cruises offered by the St.Johns Rivership Company.

What My Dog Has Taught Me About Writing

I’ve learned a lot from following my dog around. Whenever Buddy picks up an interesting scent… he walks faster and faster with his nose to the ground. Buddy will not stop until he tracks the scent to its source. It might be as small as one goldfish cracker, but he will not give up until he gets what he’s after. I must admit I admire his persistance.

I’ve discovered I need to apply a few of Buddy’s good qualities to my writing life. Although Buddy is directed by his sense of smell, I’m directed by what I see. My focus determines the direction I will go. I’m trying to direct my focus and be more productive by thinking like a dog.

Keep Looking Forward

Buddy never looks back, but continues to forge straight ahead when he’s on a mission. Sometimes I think fondly of the past and wish I could go back. That happens a lot when I look in the mirror and see how I’ve aged. Allowing my age to stop me from pursuing my dreams as a writer is a non-starter and robs me of my motivation. I need to remember and be thankful I’m retired. My age gives me more time to spend on my craft.

Look Beyond The Obstacles

Buddy never lets anything get in his way. When his back legs were paralyzed, he used his front paws to pull himself forward while dragging his back feet behind him. Wherever he wanted to go, he went. If I had focused on my inexperience as a writer, I would have never moved forward. My husband believed I could write a children’s book before I did. With his support, the fact that I’d never written a book, didn’t stop me.

Stay Alert for Opportunities

Buddy can be on the other side of the room but the sound of chopping vegetables or rustling cellophane signals his attention. He trots over to assume his position at my feet, keeping watch for any crumbs I drop on the floor.

Ideas for writing pop up on my radar just like those noises in the kitchen. Good ideas can fall to floor as quick as a kernel of popcorn. I need to keep a notebook, or my phone handy to capture them. If I’m stuck without an idea for a blog, poem, or plot, I can always consult my notes.

Take Time To Rest

I’ll admit I’m somewhat of a workaholic. It’s important to realize whether I’m being productive, or spinning my wheels and getting nowhere. Busy work saps creativity. As I write this, Buddy is curled up sleeping. He doesn’t have a care in the world. He knows he can trust me to meet his needs. In the same way I need to remember everything doesn’t depend on me. Rest can be achieved in many ways, physically and spiritually. I rest physically when I stop hitting the keys. I rest spiritually by remembering that ultimately God is in control.

I wrote this post in 2019 but the message endures today. Two years later, I’m working on book three of “The Tails of Blueberry Street” series. Buddy the Beagle is the main character of all my books. Join us for our back to school book signing this Friday in Casselberry, Florida.

Teton Magic—First you see them, then you don’t.

“Sometimes all the planning in the world doesn’t mean your day or week will turn out the way you expected.”

I have always been captivated by the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. The mountains seem to rise out of nowhere and demand your attention. I am awestruck and humbled by their presence. If I let my imagination go, I can hear them speak of the majesty of creation. The Tetons place sixth among the most photographed mountains in the world.

We all know 2020 was hard. And like many travel deprived Americans, I felt eager to fly somewhere this summer. For weeks Herb, Jenny, and I watched videos, studied maps, and planned our activities. We had a tight schedule with four days to spend in the park. That seems like enough time, right? But this trip to Grand Teton National Park came with two unexpected trials.

One week prior to leaving, I strained my back lifting a box of books. I felt good when we left on Saturday, but the pain returned after the long flight and the drive from Salt Lake City to Jackson.

When we finally arrived at the park on Sunday, I was saddened to see smoke covering the mountains. The smoke originated from fires in Oregon. Since we couldn’t see much, my traveling companions insisted I visit an urgent care for help with my back pain.

“But we only have four days! How can I waste time waiting to see a doctor?” I asked. Eventually they convinced me if I didn’t get help, I would never be able to hike. I relented and off we went to the nearest clinic.

After a lengthy wait, I saw a doctor who called in a prescription to a pharmacy across the street. When I arrived to pick up my medication, ten people stood in line ahead of me. My back muscles tensed as I noticed the pharmacy closed early on Sunday. Thirty minutes later I reached the pharmacy window, only to be told the prescription wasn’t ready and I should come back in twenty minutes.

I joined Herb and Jenny at an outdoor table for a quick snack and hobbled back to the pharmacy. Now eleven people waited in line. (Someone told me the pharmacy closes on time whether people are waiting or not.) Desperate to receive my medication, I cut through the line to get to the pick up window. I simply couldn’t stand on my feet any longer, and the thought of being turned away was more than I could bear.

The pharmacist served me, much to the chagrin of those waiting in line, who complained about my behavior. At this point it was three minutes to five and I don’t blame them for being angry. I received my meds and left the store before emotions got out of control. I confess I felt ashamed of myself.

The remainder of Sunday I spent in bed at our Airbnb in Teton Village. Monday morning I encouraged Jenny and Herb to return to the park without me as I felt no improvement in my health. I stayed in bed and felt sorry myself. I didn’t have much time left to tour the park. I wondered if all I would see is the four walls around me? Would this be my punishment for cutting the line?

By Tuesday morning I felt ready to hike. I used my trekking poles to traverse the most beautiful trail to Taggart Lake. The smoke lifted that day and we got some great pictures of the mountains. I felt good to be alive and see such beauty. After the hike we drove to visit some of the historic buildings in the park.

Taggert Lake

Wednesday we hiked to Inspiration Point, located on the opposite side of Jenny Lake. Both hikes were listed as moderate with a significant elevation gain. I felt surprised when a fellow hiker told me I was his inspiration. (Probably due to my age, I guess.)

Inspiration Point with Herb and Jenny

By Thursday my pain returned and a thick blanket of smoke covered the mountains again. We checked out and began our return trip to Orlando.

Now a week later, I am still recovering. What did I learn from this experience?

Trips take people, people don’t take trips. All the planning in the world doesn’t mean your day or week will turn out the way you expected or wanted. I had expected too much from this trip. Blessed are those who are happy with little. I am thankful for those two days when the smoke lifted and I was well enough to experience the mountains.

Somewhere in the middle, between the good times and the bad, I sensed God’s love for me. I remembered the sick woman who pressed through the crowd to reach Jesus. (Matt. 9:20-22) She received her healing. Did she cut through a line?

I am thankful Jesus is able to recycle our mistakes into something good by his transforming grace. When I depend on experiences for my happiness, I want to remember the smoke and pain of this trip.

I want to remember lasting joy is only found in God’s redeeming love.

Reflection Pond

Like tourists,

we park the car at the side of the road

and hop out for a quick photo.

Before us,

A palisade of pines frame the pond,

and like an impressionist painting,

blurry images shimmer across the water’s surface.

Behind the blades

scattered amid wide green lilly-pads,

pink buds wait for the morning sun to wake them,

commencing the grand opening

when they share their glory

with a wandering soul.

Above the drone of hidden arthropods.

a bob-white announces, “I’m here.”

During the next several minutes,

each flower changes from pink to white

and I rejoice

to be here, too.

Author Notes

We visited Reflection Pond on a camping trip at Ochlockonee River State Park located near Sopchoppy, Florida. A quick photo stop turned into a half-hour visit as Herb and I a watched a water lily open. Reflection pond is aptly named. Time seemed to stand still as we pondered the beauty of the scene. I felt like we had witnessed something special.

More about water lilies:

  • The blooms open in the morning and close in the afternoon. Each plant blooms for three to four days.
  • The flowers grow from underground stems. These stems can stretch which helps the lily adjust to rising water levels.
  • Water lilies are beneficial to ponds because they help control algae and stabilize the water temperature.
  • If your birthday is in July, the water lily is your flower!

Thank you for reading my post. An earlier post entitled Being expresses a similar theme of living in the moment in the Florida Keys. Nature has much to offer if we slow down and take notice of our surroundings. May your summer be blessed with special moments outdoors.

A Decorating Dilemma

Whew! We’ve all been there. Moving from one place to another is pure chaos. Even though a moving company handled the packing and transporting, the process stressed me out.

I apologize for my long absence from cyberspace. In my last post I mentioned our upcoming plans to move to a retirement community. For the past month, I’ve been consumed with trying to create harmony between myself and my new living space.

Our new apartment is small. (1500 square feet) We no longer have a garage, which was quite useful for stashing items we didn’t use everyday. Now, every inch of storage space matters. Although we tried to downsize, our closets are full. The movers stacked our framed art against a wall in the guest room. Every time I walked in there I thought, “What are we going to do with all of these pictures?” We live in an open floor plan with less wall space, and more windows.

If you think God doesn’t care about the little things we deal with, think again. This is one dilemma I prayed about, and His answer increased my faith.

I felt a need to keep the art I still liked—colorful landscapes and nature scenes from trips we’ve taken. So, I carried each picture from room to room to envision how it might look on the wall. Still, I couldn’t see how this eclectic mix could possibly fit together. Most of all, I didn’t want to make unnecessary holes in any of the walls. Once the pictures were hung, that’s where I wanted them to stay.

Two years ago I repurposed these frames with photographs I took at Lue Gardens. The colors brightened up the dining room and complemented our chairs, so I decided to keep them.

Then I found a collection of small canvases Jenny, our daughter, had painted. For years they decorated a bedroom. When I carried them into the dining room, I realized they matched the chairs as well. Jenny and I found some rustic looking frames at Joann Fabrics, which my husband prepared for hanging. Originally I thought I would line them up horizontally on another wall.

Enter Shaun,O’Dwyer, a floral designer with an eye for hanging pictures. Shaun came up with a new idea. Create harmony by bringing these different elements together vertically. Then hang them high. The result is amazing. I always thought pictures had to be at eye level. Shaun opened my eyes to new possibilities.

If you are wondering what to do with something old, instead of throwing it out or giving it away, think about changing it. Enlist the help of someone who might see things differently and create a new look.

“Redecorating has the power to make us feel like we have created new energy, a new vibe, a new life” —Dr. Sherrie Campbell

I am so thankful God cares about the little details in our lives. When it comes to creativity, I want to remember to look to the master creator. Behold, He makes all things new! (Rev.21:5 KJV)

Thank you for reading my blog. Leave a comment. I’d love to hear how you solved a decorating dilemma.