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.

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.

Think About Why You Started, and Keep Going

Everyone has dreams. How many of your dreams have become reality?

Five years ago I started writing this blog. Initially, I wanted to encourage people to pursue their creativity. I started as the Poet on Blueberry Street on April 1, 2016. My first post was very short. I really didn’t know what I was doing or where this blog would take me.

So it goes with creativity. One step leads to another and before you know it five years have passed. I have published one hundred sixty-two entries since 2016. Some of you may have followed me since the beginning. We have shared the ups and downs of camping in Florida, adventures in gardening, and of course who could forget the pandemic?

Throughout it all I’ve weaved my love for poetry, reading, and writing. Today I looked back at some of my favorite poetry posts. In case you missed them, or would like to revisit, click on these links.

If Trees Could Talk and Other Poems (2017)

Poetry a Message in a Bottle (2018)

Fallen Leaves (2019)

Ode to the Spotted Bananas (2020)

I realize I am not a blogger who keeps a specific schedule. I tend to hit the keys when I feel inspired. Creativity cannot be forced, but it can be furthered by allowing ourselves to “be in the zone.” I am thankful for this opportunity to express myself without an editor looking over my shoulder.

In the process of writing this post I discovered a website called DayZero. I was surprised to learn the world’s most popular goals include writing a blog, losing weight, and writing a book. Interesting. How blessed I am to accomplish two of those goals. (Remember, I like to eat bread.)

Whatever your goals, I leave you with this quote from Darren Hardy.

“Starting is not most people’s problem. Staying, continuing, and finishing is.”

In the words of Buddy the Beagle…. never give up.

At home, reading Return to Blueberry Street to my favorite beagle.

The Business Side of Writing

Perseverance is the theme of 2020

I’ve met many people who write. Some have unfinished projects hidden away in the closets of their mind. When they speak about writing, they tilt their heads to one side with an expression of longing. Then they usually let out a sigh, snap out of their fantasy, and don’t elaborate much. I always wonder what made them give up on their dream. Did the pursuit of publication seem too difficult?

Writing demands bold perseverance. In order to succeed you must finish your manuscript. The next step is convincing an editor your book should be published. Once your book is released, the glory of being an “author” slowly diminishes. Now you begin the hard work of eternal marketing. As long as your book is print, you’re married to it. It’s a “till death do we part” kind of relationship.

Most writers are not salespersons. Once I heard something from a seasoned author. “If you don’t promote your book, no one else will.” His words stuck with me and have prompted me to strike up conversations about my work with strangers. Anytime Buddy (my beagle) is with me these conversations become easier. Whenever we take a walk folks ask me about his red boots. (The best thing about being an author is being an author who writes stories about her dog.)

Buddy and I love meeting people. For the past ten months all of our public appearances were cancelled due to the pandemic. Until now.

I’m excited to announce I will be selling and signing copies of Buddy the Beagle on Blueberry Street and my latest release, Return to Blueberry Street at the Conway Community Market.

Location: Conway United Methodist Church 3401 South Conway Road Orlando FL 32812

The outdoor market will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Come out and meet us! And if you wonder who I am under my face mask, you can take a look at my headshot on the back cover of my books.

“A book that can be enjoyed by all ages, this story is filled with life lessons, character tests, and love.”—Amazon reviewer

“Buddy engages readers on a new adventure, while teaching many of life’s important lessons. A great complement to any classroom.”—Amazon reviewer

* If you do not live in the Orlando area, or are unable to attend our book signing, click here to purchase.

Dear Reader, I leave you with this quote…

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
― Sylvia Plath

A Little Encouragement Can Go a Long Way

I think everyone can agree 2020 has been tough. Has the pandemic erased your hopes and shattered your dreams? The economic slowdown has affected most of us, including writers. If you feel discouraged, consider the negative voices affecting the way you think about yourself and your work.

What messages influence your thoughts? If we listen to the news media we might wonder if our circumstances will ever change. Will the pandemic last for years? Will we ever be able to make public appearances again? If you’re like me, you can’t even think about scheduling any future events.

Eventually, all the bad news from the media begins to influence the way we think about ourselves. The voice of our inner critic grows louder. It is the voice which brings to mind our past failures and limitations. And if we compare ourselves to others who appear to be more successful, we hinder our own progress because we no longer feel like trying. I never thought the launch of my second children’s book would take place during such challenging times.

Return to Blueberry Street follows Buddy the beagle into a new adventure. When a porch pirate steals his dog treats, Buddy decides to organize a dog crime watch to catch the bandit.

But Buddy has a critic. A Doberman with an attitude bullies him at the dog park. Blitz constantly makes fun of Buddy because he can’t run with the big dogs. How could a loser in red booties like Buddy ever catch the bandit? The little beagle starts to doubt himself and considers giving up.

Buddy’s friend Max tells him, “Don’t worry, with your nose and my feet, we’ll catch the bandit.” Max didn’t ignore Buddy’s weakness. He knew Buddy couldn’t run because of a previous injury. But he recognized Buddy’s amazing sense of smell and encouraged him to not give up. Then Max came alongside to help.

Everyone has limitations. Personally, I started writing late in life. I don’t have a background in business and I struggle with marketing and technology. Everyday I must choose whether or not I will listen to the naysayers who tell me I’m doomed and the inner critic who tells me to quit.

My hope arises when I remember all the people in my life who are like Max. People who encourage me to utilize my strengths and never give up. People who read this blog, and share my posts. And once again I open my laptop and begin to write.

Think about this scripture: “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13

Maybe the Apostle Paul knew when hope is absent, love can lift us up and help us fulfill the calling upon our lives. If you find yourself in a dark place today, think about all of people God placed in your life to encourage you and give you hope. Remember why you started writing in the first place and reconnect with your creativity. A little encouragement can go a long way.

Join Buddy as he learns about the power of friendship in my second book.

Return to Blueberry Street is available in ebook and paperback on Amazon. Click here to purchase.

(Ha! I had to get that last line in somewhere.)

Love Me, Love My Dog

An example of unconditional love.

Have you ever stopped to think about how many English idioms we use in conversation each day? “Love me, love my dog” is one of these old sayings.

Origin

A medieval French monk, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux immortalized the phrase during one of his sermons. (Wait a minute. Was he the saint that Saint Bernard dogs are named after? No. That was Saint Bernard of Menthon.)

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux referred to the phrase when he was speaking about about angels and their love for humanity. Originally, “He who loves me, also loves my dog.” was a common ancient proverb. So the saying originated much earlier than 1100 A.D.

As a person living in 2020, I find it hard to believe dogs once had a negative connotation. In medieval times people did not want to have dogs as pets. Dogs were dirty and carried diseases. Grooming and vaccinations were unheard of. To own a dog was considered a fault. To love someone who had a dog, was to love them unconditionally.

Usage in Modern Times

Over the years the old saying was shortened to “love me, love my dog” and has be taken literally as well as figuratively. Sometimes a child would bring a flea-bitten stray mutt into the house, expecting to be welcomed with open arms. The child was often met with mixed results depending on his mother’s mood at the time.

The literal meaning isn’t as popular now because people love dogs so much, they own more than one. Pets are considered members of the family. People take their pets everywhere. We are quite accustomed to seeing dogs in Florida parks, campgrounds, and on hiking trails. (leashed, of course)

But the figurative meaning of love me, love my dog states an important message for couples. In order for a marriage to succeed, two people need to accept each other as they are— including their wants and needs.

My Personal Story

Given how much I adore Buddy, you might be surprised to learn I never wanted to own a dog. I didn’t want the responsibility of walking a dog, and I certainly didn’t want to pick up after one. I also disliked the idea of any pet getting up on the furniture.

Herb was the one who always wanted a beagle. We had been happily married for over thirty years. Since he was nearing retirement, how could I deprive him of something he needed? “Love me, love my dog?”

When we met Buddy in 2011 my heart melted. Buddy has changed my life. This week I’m visiting schools to speak about Buddy the Beagle on Blueberry Street and praising this adorable dog.

Everywhere we go, we meet people who love Buddy. He’s become a celebrity in our neighborhood and his presence always helps me sell me more books at local events. Buddy gets more attention for being a dog, than I do for being an author. I’m ready to put a new twist on the old proverb.

“Love my dog, love me?”

Musings from My Garden

Growth is the result of forces working together…

I’ve waged war with killer snails. I’ve celebrated the birth of marigold seedlings. This is my first backyard experience growing Sunpatiens and the plants are out of control.

True to their name, Sunpatiens love sun. They also like heat, humidity, and lots of water. All of which are abundant in Florida. I planted my little crop last fall. They thrived all winter. April is here and they continue to bloom like crazy.

Originally, I placed a pot of Dianthus in the center of my flowerbed to add a colorful focal point. About a month ago I placed bricks under the pot to elevate the pink blooms because I could barely see them. Now the Sunpatiens have grown even taller. What a terrible problem to have right?

If I apply this story to my writing life I can see a correlation. The fulfillment of a hoped for success brings new challenges. An author succeeds in publishing a book. The release of the book demands sales. It’s now up to the author to spend time marketing the product. All of a sudden I’m running a new business involving book signings, publicity, and sales tax.

I’m not sorry I planted the Sunpatiens. Nor am I sorry I wrote a book. Life would be quite boring if we never followed our passions. If conditions are right, flowers grow. I planted the seedlings, but the increase was due to nature. Honestly, I haven’t done much to encourage them. They took off on their own. In the same way if my book speaks to readers, they will share my message with others.

Growth is never by mere chance; it is the result of forces working together. —James Cash Penney

The forces which work together to encourage the Sunpatiens to grow are light, heat, and water. Location also enabled them to grow to their magnificent size. Sometimes we forget about the part of a plant we can’t see. A tree used to stand in my garden. The tree grew too big and we had to cut it down. Instead of covering the area with more pavers, we left the dirt in place for a new flower bed. The rich soil allows the roots of each plant to grow deep and spread out. Roots need space to grow.

Space is important for writers to grow as well. Most people work better when they have a block of uninterrupted time to create. I used to think writers created their masterpieces in charming little cabins in the woods. What a luxury. Here I am at my dining room table looking through a window at my patio garden.

Back to the Sunpatiens. They seem to be happy. The power is all mine to let them live or pull them out and plant new seedlings. I’ll wait to see what the forces of nature do next.

Enjoy more stories about my garden by reading “The Majestic Marigold.”

Get more info about my book here “Buddy the Beagle on Blueberry Street”.

One Campground That’s Gone to the Dogs

This week I learned something about people who camp. In addition to bringing their bikes, kayaks, and fishing equipment, they usually make room for Fido.

Since Herb and I normally include our beagle with us on our campouts, we fit right in at Myakka River State Park. This was our first excursion with Buddy for 2019, and we were ready to explore more of the “real Florida.” Located in the southwestern part of the state, Myakka is the largest state park and the most visited. The beautiful Myakka River flows through vast unspoiled wetlands, palm hammocks, and natural prairies. Visitors enjoy photographing the numerous birds and alligators along the scenic Park Drive.

A view of the Myakka River at Fisherman’s Loop

One morning during our stay we attended the camper’s coffee. Since the event was located at an outdoor pavilion, I thought it would be fun to include Buddy. We were prepared to bring him back to the campsite in case dogs weren’t allowed. Buddy was not only welcomed, he became the center of attention. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by Leeann and Dan Brown, snowbirds temporarily volunteering this winter with the Friends of Myakka. They were excited to meet Buddy and wanted to know all about the red booties he wears on his back feet.

We were happy to share Buddy’s “back story”, and the upcoming release of Buddy the Beagle on Blueberry Street, my first children’s book. (Elk Lake Publishing) Later, Leeann and Dan visited us at our camper to chat and take photos of us with Buddy. They shared his story on their facebook page, RV Companions. All of a sudden I felt like I was on a book tour… after all, Buddy is the real star and Herb and I are only his managers.

Back to the Myakka campground. Our site was located in Old Prairie, which was one of three campgrounds located in the park. Almost everyone had a dog traveling with them, most had two. Of course when there are that many dogs in close proximity to one another, you have a fair amount of barking going on. I felt like a proud mama because Buddy seemed quiet and calmer than the rest. That was until we left him in the trailer for an hour while we visited the Canopy Walkway. Later, during a casual conversation, our neighbor informed us Buddy was not happy most of the time we were gone. His whining escalated to crying. Soon all the neighboring dogs started to bark. Note to self: administer the anti-anxiety medication at least two hours before leaving Buddy alone.

Even though Buddy woke up our neighbor at seven in the morning, he had an easy-going attitude and didn’t seem to mind. Maybe it was because he had four dogs of his own. He did suggest some of Buddy’s loneliness could be solved if we adopted a companion pet for Buddy. We were not interested. Living quarters are already tight inside our sixteen foot Viking. (We haven’t asked Buddy what he thinks about it.)

As night fell, peace also descended upon the busy campground. Some of the dogs were secure and quiet inside their RV’s. Others close to their owner’s feet, dozed by the campfire. The nightly soundtrack of waking insects began to play as the sun set. The smell of grilled burgers and hot dogs drifted through the air. Campers come and go, yet tonight there is a feeling of community among all of us who love nature, outdoor life, and dogs.

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Does Fear Trap You from Pursuing Your Dreams?

Two years ago my husband asked me to join him for a two-day guided mule ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. At first, I hesitated to give him an answer. I have no riding skills and I’m fearful of heights. His idea seemed out of the question.

Even so, I began to entertain the thought. I’ve always wanted the experience of being inside the canyon instead of standing at the rim, so I agreed to go. Once he made our reservations and flight arrangements, there was no turning back. In the meantime, I set my heart on trying to think positive thoughts about what might await us.

Have you ever allowed fear to keep you from following your dream? A few weeks ago one of my followers commented she wants to write more, but is fearful her work will be rejected by others. She avoids spending time writing by busying herself with other activities until she no longer has time available. Her fear has become a source of self-protection.

I appreciated her honesty. Good for you, the first step to overcoming fear is acknowledging it.

Author Tosca Lee said something I will never forget. “Write like no one will see this.” Writing like no one will see it chases fear away and permits us to create. We need to banish the self-critic in order to let our thoughts flow onto the paper. Until we engage in our art, we seldom move forward.

It’s true that not all of our creative works are worthy of publication. Rejection goes with the territory, whether it be from an editor, a friend, or a spouse. My husband is my sounding board. Sometimes he proofs my work and says, “I’m not getting this.” Then I know I haven’t made myself clear. Time for another revision. Rejection can make us better writers.

Accept the reality there are people who can write better than you. Comparing ourselves to others chokes our creativity. Our current culture demands instant success. But how do people achieve success? First, they decide to start. Then they decide to continue. Most marathon runners begin by competing in a 5K. Slowly, they continue to build their stamina by participating in longer races.

We can receive encouragement from Scripture when facing fearful situations. One of my favorite verses is Proverbs 29:25. “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.”

Just like a snare traps a small animal, fear traps us from pursuing our dreams. Pray for courage to throw off fear and trust God to take you where He wants you to go.

When I descended into the Grand Canyon, I didn’t look to the right or left of the trail. I kept my focus straight ahead on Olga, my mule. Olga, you know the way. You’ve traveled this path many times. As Olga continued to steadily plod along, I began to relax and enjoy the beautiful landscape of the canyon. For more details about the trip, see my previous post entitled, Trust and Obey.

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Ask yourself what matters. Are you content to stay in your comfort zone? Is it time to stop viewing the canyon from the rim?

 

 

Poetry: A Message in a Bottle

Rain Song       

The rhythm of the rain

God’s pattern of music

echoes divine favor

bridges heaven and earth.

Poetry is the rain

that soaks the senses

and sings the melody

which waters the soul.

(Debra Burton 2014)

 

“Poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.” Carl Sandburg  Atlantic Monthly, March 1923

In case you forgot, April is National Poetry Month. During the month of April flowers bloom and butterflies flutter.  What a great time of year to recognize the significant contribution of poetry to our world. Maybe you haven’t given this art form much thought. Maybe you enjoyed reading poetry in school, but currently read novels instead.  Maybe you don’t feel like you understand what some poets are trying to say.  If you agree with any or all of these statements, please consider the following benefits of reading poetry.

  • Poetry helps readers grow intellectually. It teaches us to simplify complex ideas through the use of  symbolism and imagery.  As we read we draw a mental picture of what the poet sees.
  • When we engage with the emotions of the poet, we develop empathy. If we identify with the experiences of other people, we better understand ourselves.
  • Poetry infuses life with beauty and meaning, which increases our creativity.

Take a few moments to access these links. In her poem, Hope is a thing with feathers, Emily Dickinson compares hope to a bird that never makes demands.  Shel Silverstein grapples with the secret world of dialogue known to caterpillars in his poem, Forgotten Language.  William Wordsworth elevates his mood by contemplating daffodils in his work, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.  All of these poems connect with the reader’s emotions through the appreciation of nature. These poets make new discoveries as they ponder the small things which are often overlooked in the hustle and bustle of life.

Writing poetry is a vehicle for artistic self-expression. Who I am, what I think, and my experiences are communicated by showing instead of telling.  The poet paints with words, like an artist paints on canvas.

In his book, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, author Edward Hirsch refers to poetry as a message in a bottle. After the message is cast into the ocean, it drifts onto the beach waiting to be opened. The finder is the one the message was trying to reach. Once the finder opens it, words spill out from a distant place and time, yet still rich with meaning.

The following poems are my messages in a bottle. Cast out upon the waves, may these words reach the finders they are seeking.  

For My Brother

As night fell in the desert

We stretched out on our cots,

Saw distant constellations

Whose titles we forgot

Viewed streaks of falling stars

Pulled down by gravity

Like fleeting dreams of childhood

Which never came to be.

 

The howl of a coyote

Made such an eerie sound.

It cautioned all outsiders,

“I will defend my ground.”

We whispered to each other

And felt a tinge of fright

Like children telling stories

When Dad turned out the light.

(Debra Burton 2015)

 

A Hapless Hero

Flutter of butterflies hover on the scene.

Arizona thistles bow before each queen.

Flutter of butterflies crowned in orange and white,

Seated on their purple thrones surrounded by the light.

Flutter of butterflies lift your scepters up.

Raise the royal chalice, drink deeply from the cup.

 

One little butterfly caught so unaware,

Lunch for a roadrunner dashing to his lair.

Roadrunner, fierce hunter, slowing to a stop.

Overcome with dizziness, suddenly he drops.

Flutter of butterflies, your banquet is not done.

Your kingdom was saved by the sacrifice of one.

(Debra Burton 2015)

 

 

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Arizona Queen Butterflies