A path lit by words

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Characters and Convertibles

First posted as a guest blogger for The Quotable Literary Magazine.


From time to time, a frustrated writer asks me where inspiration comes from.  I tell them anywhere and everywhere.  One of my favorite examples is a great character I discovered in an unlikely place—the Saturday “Wheels” section of The Island Packet, the local newspaper here on Hilton Head Island.

In a column by the Car Talk brothers, a 93-year-old woman sought advice about buying a convertible. She’s driven cross-country twice, and just last year she traveled 3,000 miles through the Southwest in her 2000 Subaru. The trip raised fond memories of her Dodge Dart convertible, stolen years ago from a Detroit service station where she had left it to have the top replaced. Now she wants “one more crack at a convertible.”

Her letter is wonderful because, in barely 100 words, I know who she is. She may not call herself a writer, but she follows the essential rule: She shows me. She doesn’t tell me. She doesn’t say, “I’m a feisty nonagenarian with a sense of adventure who refuses to let age get in the way.” She doesn’t boast that she’s healthy and that she watches her weight and her cholesterol. She doesn’t whine that owning a convertible is one of the few items left on her Bucket List and she’s running out of time. This woman is focused on living her life and to do that, she needs a car that’s “moderately priced, safe, serviceable, and FUN.”

I can’t stop myself from filling in the blanks to create her back-story—how she grew up in a small town in Ohio that she left at age eighteen to join a pre-World War II peace organization. She traveled through Europe and eventually made her home in San Francisco. She’s a retired educator, an administrator or a professor of languages who never married. Her name is Rita, her convertible is a yellow Mustang, and she’s driving home for the first time since her mother’s 1988 funeral, to mend fences with her younger brother.

Or her name is Josephine Hollister Rice and she’s the wealthy matriarch of a family from Boston’s Back Bay. She toed the line all her life, but lately she’s become a loose cannon. In fact, the Daughters of the American Revolution have banned her from meetings because she revealed a local Senator’s extramarital affairs. Only her first great-grandchild, born to her eldest granddaughter when she was just sixteen, thinks Grandmother—he calls her Jo—is the cat’s meow. They run away together in her brand-new red Porsche, in search of Jo’s first love, the black sheep she was forbidden to marry back in 1942.

Or she might be Clara, the wife of an Iowa farmer who died before he could fulfill his dream of driving a restored ’57 Chevy convertible east to see the ocean. Or … or…or…You see what I mean.

Where does inspiration come from? Anywhere and everywhere. All it takes is sharp eyes, an open mind, and the willingness to follow your imagination wherever it takes you.

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To blog is human


I’ve been writing a novel for a while now, which means that people keep asking, “Got that book published yet?” As if it’s easy. As if I could be published if I wasn’t so lazy, dumb, and distracted. With that kind of pressure, it’s hard to think about anything but what you can do to make your book better. To draw the attention of an agent. To get a contract and be published.

A few months ago, after a request for a full manuscript ended in disappointment, I put my book aside. I didn’t write anything, and with time on my hands, I started reading about the business of writing. Want to get published? You need a website, a Facebook presence, and a blog. Writers really need to blog.

Oh, man. Really? Bloggers are narcissists. They are relentless self-promoters. The world already has too many bloggers. And so on.

I’ll spare you the details of my conversion journey, but I rolled up my sleeves and built a website on WordPress. I’ve been blogging since November 2013 and I highly recommend it. Here’s why:

  • A blog demands a commitment. Unlike the essays, short stories, and books that languish in forgotten Word files, “in progress” doesn’t work for blog posts. They must be completed and posted, on a schedule—once a week, or ten days, or two weeks. Finishing a piece of writing feels good.  I’ve written on deadline—usually someone else’s—so setting my own deadlines and sticking to them was a discipline I needed to learn.
  • A blog teaches you to be concise. Like any writing, a blog is a story—in 500 words or less. Beginning, middle, end. Tell the story. Notice what you had to cut to reach the right length, and apply the same principles to your other writing. Try it on short-short stories.
  • A blog gives you objective feedback. When you’re writing a book, your only readers are people you know, people you ask—too often,  because they’re friendly and safe. With a blog, your fans (and your critics) self-select. They tell you what they think. Whether you like it or not.
  • A  blog makes you human. It shows who you are as a person. Imagine an agent reading your dozen or so posts and saying, “Hmm. How interesting. I’d like to get to know her.” The same is true for any business person. Blogging puts you out there and makes you approachable.
  • A blog connects you. Writing is lonely, even if you love it. Writers need isolation, but we also need companionship to feed our minds and our hearts. Following others’ blogs helps you make a different sort of friend, one who shares your interests—and often your concerns.

Blogging will make you a better writer. It will expand your confidence, and if you let it, your self-knowledge. Sometimes what you learn will make you cringe; other times it will make you smile. All of it will help you move through life—as a writer and as a person.

So yes, I admit it: I love blogging.

But I still hate Twitter!

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Waiting for tulips


I grew up in Pennsylvania, where spring bulbs not only thrive, but multiply, exploding each spring in waves of brilliant color. For twenty years, I’ve lived in the South, where daffodils and tulips have to be coaxed into half-hearted bloom and even then, they’re only good for one season. Despite mixed results, I keep planting them, but not without an argument. I stand over the bed, a spade in my hand, while a little voice whispers, “Remember Atlanta? You’re wasting your time.” Then a louder voice argues, “Give them a chance. Maybe they’ll grow.”

That voice is my mother. When I was a child, her kitchen garden spanned half an acre, with six-by-eight plots for my sister and me. Mom grew root crops and beans, lettuce and tomatoes, sweet corn and English peas. Her seasonal border charmed passing motorists, beginning with daffodils, tulips, and iris, and giving way, through the summer, to daylilies, gladiolus, and dahlias.

Her gardening impulse spilled over to the weird and wonderful hybrids advertised in the Sunday supplements and the back of Woman’s Day. Every few weeks, the mailman would beep and Mom would hurry outside, returning with a ventilated cardboard box from Gurney Brothers or Burpee. Inside would be a tomato plant that promised a three-bushel yield, a vine guaranteed to cover a twenty-foot fence in a single season, or a shrub that dared to flower half-pink and half-blue. Each one arrived as a humble three-inch stem with two leaves, its immature roots enclosed in a plastic bag of potting mix and straw. Mom nurtured them all, rejoicing when they thrived and shrugging—unconvincingly—when they didn’t. She played the game with vigor and she won more often than she lost.

One October, after a long time away, I went home for a visit. The first thing I  noticed was the dooryard garden, weed-choked and dry. There were no fading marigolds, no pungent chrysanthemums filling in until snow. My indefatigable mom, who  hand-mowed a half acre into her sixties, was slowing down. Our relationship had had its bumps, but gardening always brought us together, so I changed into jeans, armed myself with Mom’s shovel, and prepared to attack the neglected bed.

Mom stood by, wringing her hands. “Be careful,” she said. “There might be some bulbs.”

Might be some bulbs? Each thrust of the shovel brought out a clump of five, or ten, or even twenty. There were hundreds of bulbs. There were more bulbs than soil, and pretty soon we were giggling. While I dug out the weeds and amended the soil with compost and bone meal, Mom separated the daffodils from the tulips and the crocus from the grape hyacinths. Many were shriveled; others were beginning to rot. I would have thrown them out and started over, but that wasn’t Mom’s way. We planted every one, the last of them by the light from the porch.

That winter was hard and by January, Mom had grown weary of the cold. “Spring’s coming,” I’d say, and she’d answer, “I know, and I’m waiting for tulips.” I had my doubts that those bulbs would bloom, but I didn’t let on, and it’s a good thing: Those old bulbs put on a show that truly amazed me. Mom was ecstatic and I learned my lesson.

Now when the dreary months get me down, I remind myself spring’s coming. And thanks to my mom, I’m waiting for tulips.

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Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson!

here's to you

His name was Jake and he was dating my next-door neighbor’s twenty-year-old daughter. Sprawled on the living room sofa, he spoke through a three-beer haze.

“You remind me of someone,” he said.

“I have at least one double in town,” I replied. “A guy from work threw popcorn at her in a movie theater.”

Jake shook his head. “Not a real person. A movie star.”

“No kidding. Which one?”

“I can’t remember her name, but she’s tall and blonde and she has great eyes. We saw her on a DVD. Hey, Jen,” he called to his girlfriend. “What was that movie about the writer who killed herself?”

Sylvia,” Jen said.

I was flattered. “You think I look like Gwyneth Paltrow?”

“Not her,” Jake said. “The mother.”

He meant Blythe Danner, Gwyneth’s mother for real. I thanked him. It seemed like the right thing to do.

Then I added, “The last time someone said I looked like an actress, it was Jacquelyn Bisset.”

“Who?” Jake said.

Who indeed. That happened in the eighties—before Jake was born.

“Do I really remind you of Blythe Danner?” I asked.

Jake waffled. Maybe it was my piercing glare.  “Actually, you look more like that woman in The Graduate.”

It must have been classics night for Jen and Jake. I knew better, this time, than to guess Katharine Ross.

“Anne Bancroft,” I said. “Mrs. Robinson.”

“Yeah, her.”

Still somebody’s mother, and Anne Bancroft is old. In fact, I think she’s dead.

Later, I told my husband Jake thought I looked like Blythe Danner.

“Who?” he asked.

“Blythe Danner. We saw her in Sylvia. She was the mother.”

“What else has she played in?”

I rolled my eyes. “She was Sallie Wingo in Prince of Tides. And Robert de Niro’s wife in those Focker movies.”

“Can’t place her. And I hate those Focker movies.”

What was I thinking? This man asks, “Who?” when I mention Laura Linney or Julianne Margulies or even Shelley Long.

“Who’s Shelley Long?” he asked.

“You know. From Cheers.”

I got a blank stare.

“Sam’s girlfriend,” I nudged.

“Which one?”

“The first one, Diane. She was Fraser’s fiancé.”

“The blonde or the brunette?”

I gave up. “Anyway, after Blythe Danner, it got worse. He told me I look like Anne Bancroft.”

I prepared to list her movie credits, but my husband cut me off with a yelp.

“Mrs. Robinson? Mrs. Robinson was hot!”

“She must have been, if you remember her from the sixties.”

“I was a teenage boy,” he defended himself. Then he smiled. “How old was Anne Bancroft when she made The Graduate?”

Great save, I thought. And a great question. How old was Anne Bancroft when she seduced a young Dustin Hoffman?

I ran to the kitchen and grabbed my smart phone. The Internet can tell me. The Internet knows all. But first I typed Blythe Danner into IMDb. She was born February 3, 1943.

Yup, she’s old.

I typed in Anne Bancroft.

Real name Anna Maria Louisa Italiano. Married to Mel Brooks for forty years. Appeared in sixty movies, made The Graduate in 1967. Born September 17, 1931. Died June 6, 2005.

Rest in peace, Anne, but bless your heart, you were thirty-six when you made that movie!

“She was thirty-six,” I shouted to my husband.

“See?” he said. Then, “How old is Blythe Danner?”

I fluttered my eyelashes and smiled. “I’m sorry. Who?”


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Is Your Boss a Psychopath?

On the HBR Blog Network this month, Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, Distinguished Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change at INSEAD, referenced The Wolf of Wall Street in his post, “Is Your Boss a Psychopath.” It took me back more than ten years, when I started to write a mystery novel—and realized I knew nothing about how villains think.

Forensic psychologist Barbara Kirwin introduced me to sociopaths and psychopaths in The Mad, the Bad, and the Innocent. Kirwin used murderers, serial killers, and rapists to illustrate the distinction between insanity and evil. At the core is the M’Naghten Rule—the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Simply put, the psychopath knows the difference. S/he just doesn’t care.

Repelled and intrigued, I moved on to Robert Hare, Ph. D., whose forty-year career includes developing the psychopathy checklist and the P-scan to test for it. In Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, Hare points out the chilling fact that most psychopaths never go to prison. The rest—Hare refers to them as “subcriminal” psychopaths while others call them “successful”—are found in our churches, our governments, our schools, and—badum ching—our corporations.

It was 2002 and we’d just lived through the WorldCom and Enron scandals that gave us Bernie Ebbers, Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and Andrew Fastow. Hare’s book got me thinking about the CEOs, C-suite executives, and other managers I’d met over the years—some who destroyed one corporation and moved on to the next, others who seemed to thrive on using and abusing their employees. Hare showed me why psychopaths so often end up in leadership positions:  Their essential characteristics—such as superficial charm, self-confidence, and calm reaction to rapid change and chaos—make them attractive to corporate boards in troubled companies. More often than not, their lack of empathy, high tolerance for risk, and love of power sink the ship instead of turning it around.

In 2005, after more scandals had emerged, Fast Company published an article (also called “Is Your Boss a Psychopath?”) that quoted Hare and mentioned the B-scan, an assessment tool adapted by Hare and industrial psychologist Paul Babiak from the P-scan. “We screen police officers [for psychopathy],” Hare said at the time. “Why not people who are going to handle billions of dollars?”

Fast forward through ten years of corporate collapses and scandals and we still don’t have a screening tool suitable for an organizational setting. Apparently, it’s not easy to validate such a tool, and you have to believe there are legal issues. Psychological Assessment recently reported progress with the B-Scan 360, which uses ratings of others to measure an individual’s psychopathic features in workplace settings. Unfortunately, it still isn’t ready for prime time.

While we’re waiting, psychologists like Clive R. Boddy and others writing business and management articles and blogs are teaching us to spot these real-life villains, so we can eradicate them from our careers and our lives—and keep them in fiction, where they belong.