It’s been a long, cold winter in northwest Montana. There have been many mornings where it’s been too bitter cold to take my dog, Annie, for the longer, rambling walks along the river that we enjoy so much the rest of the year. We long for warmer days without slippery ice and frostbitten fingers. She’s dreaming of those days now, lying on her bed in my office while I write my next book. Winter is beautiful here, but we hope the warm weather is coming soon. I look up to my bulletin board for inspiration and read this lovely poem by Mary Oliver. And then I continue to write my book. That is one of the many things I’m doing with my one wild and precious life. And I love it. I hope her beautiful words give you inspiration, too.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
how to fall down into the grass,
how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed,
how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I was digging through some old journals the other day and came across the journal I used for writing practice the first time I read Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life. This was back in the early, early nineties during one crazy year when I quit my day job, took out a loan and lived on the delusion that my very first novel would be instantly snatched up by Mills & Boon, and I would be become an instant, overnight success, raking in lots and lots of money. It was a lovely dream, one that had to be squashed for almost two decades while I pursued an actual paying career.
But I learned something new about myself that year, something that has stayed with me ever since, guiding me daily as I continue to hone my writing craft.
I’d always been an avid reader, but I’d never bothered with the books that taught you How to Write. Either you can write, or you can’t, was my attitude. I Know What I’m Doing. Until I reached what seemed like a dead end with my first novel. I’d stare at the computer screen for hours, my mind as blank as the page before me, typing and re-typing the same paragraph and getting nowhere. I was stuck.
So, I took myself off to the local mall and browsed the shelves in the Writing & Publishing section at Waldenbooks (the pre-Barnes & Noble era) until the title of Natalie’s book grabbed my attention. Wild Mind. Cool title. Just a few pages into the first chapter and I was captivated. I purchased that book and a copy of The Elements of Style and hurried home, anxious to put Natalie’s advice into action.
Through a series of “Try this” writing practices, Natalie teaches you how to wake up your mind, to take risks, to find the narrator hiding deep within, that voice that speaks the truth, even when it might be uncomfortable. There’s no destination with each writing practice topic. You look at the topic, put pen to paper and Just Write. Don’t stop to think. Don’t worry about punctuation, theme or style. Just Write.
Within days, my brain was wide awake. I was looking at the world around me in a way I never had before. Everything had suddenly changed from monochrome to vivid Technicolor. Descriptive words, many I’d never known were inside of me, were tumbling around in my brain almost faster than I could put them to paper. I got into the habit of doing one writing practice for 5-15 minutes every day before I worked on my book. And I’ve never stopped. A warmup before a vigorous workout.
One of the “Try this” practices from the book I do the most often uses the words “I remember” and “I don’t remember.” Write down “I remember” and just keep on writing. It’s amazing what pours out. It could be something that happened minutes earlier or many years ago. Below are some excerpts from my journal written over 20 years ago. Reading them now, I’m struck by the simplicity of the words. I was no longer wasting my time looking for Big Words and flowery descriptions (yawn). No, there isn’t anything earth-shattering here, but it’s both a reminder of the first steps I took to becoming a better writer and an incentive to constantly keep working at it. And that’s something writers should do every single day.
I remember days when I was a child. I remember lying on the sidewalk on Gilardi Street—on my back with my head on the downslope, staring upside down at the long, steep hill. I remember feeling as if I didn’t have anything to hold onto and that I would slide down the hill like water over the crashing rocks of a steep waterfall.
I remember the color and texture of the orange I had for breakfast this morning, the acidity and sweetness in my mouth. It was a good orange, the kind with the little tiny wedges of orange curled at the top—extra sweet and juicy…
I don’t remember the bicycle accident. The plastic wheels of the orange bike had no traction on the summer slick pavement. I don’t remember the handlebars breaking free of my grip…
I remember spending time at the dock at Fallen Leaf Lake. I remember climbing the ladder after a swim in the ice-cold water and feeling the sun-warmed wooden slats beneath my feet. I remember stretching out on my beach towel and lying down on my stomach facing the lake. I close my wet lashes and breathe in the smell of warm wood, wet towels, suntan lotion. The voices of others on the dock drift over me. I am totally relaxed, liquid, every muscle and bone in my body liquid. I am one with the sun and the powder blue sky and the water slapping against the dock. I hear the sound of a motorboat, the bell in the dining hall calling the staff to lunch, Mr. Mower giving someone his spiel about sailing. When the sun becomes too hot against my back, I sit up, wrapping the towel around me, and stare into the lake, studying the different variations of the color blue. I look to Mt. Tallac, red rock, gray slashes of slate, manzanita green, craggy points, the line of a trail snaking along the mountain face. A white cloud touches the mountain, passes beneath the sun and the lake turns to midnight blue. I take a deep breath. My mind is clean of any thought except pure happiness.
It’s amazing what happens when you quit thinking about writing and Just Write. The more real it is, the better. I strongly recommend Wild Mind to anyone who wants to become a better writer.
What books have inspired you to improve your writing craft?
A new year. A new website. I’m back in full writing mode, and how glorious it is!
It’s doubtful I would be feeling so cheerful and inspired right now if it weren’t for Betty Neels.
Montana winters can be grueling with one bitter cold, gray and dreary day leading to the next. My daily morning walk (no matter the weather) with my faithful Australian Shepard, Annie, at my side, gets the day off to a brisk, refreshing start, but—unless the sun decides to make a brief appearance to remind us Montanans that it still exists—my morning energy has said farewell by early afternoon.
Back in late December on a particularly cold and dark day, one of my neighbors shared with me that he and his wife are moving to North Carolina this summer. “For good!” he said, rubbing his gloved hands together and stomping his booted feet in the snow to keep warm as we chatted. “It’s more for me than her, though. I’ve got SAD. Have to sit under one of those special lamps for a couple of hours every day. I’m driving her crazy.” I commiserated with him. Then, occasional forward thinker that I am, I asked him what he was planning to do with his snow blower since I doubted he’d need it in that southern clime. “I’ll give you first dibs. Hundred bucks.” Visions of me not having to shovel my driveway next winter lifted my spirits for a few hours. Yet, it still wasn’t enough to inspire me to write the next chapter in my book. Gloom was settling in as I wandered over to my bookcase and scanned its offerings.
Sun and Candlelight by Betty Neels. Well! How perfect is that! Soon I was immersed in Betty Neels land, journeying with a British nurse (circa 1979) to Holland with her Handsome Tall Broad Shouldered Dutch Doctor Husband. One of Betty’s Marriage of Convenience story-lines, old-fashioned to some but as timeless and lovely as it was the first time I read it many years ago.
Of course, once I finished that story I had to find another Betty Neels on my shelf. Then I pulled up my Betty Collection on my Kindle. Dear, sweet Betty carried me through the winter slump and brought sunshine into my heart. I spent a lot of time in Holland and in London hospitals and Cotswold cottages. I took a cruise to Vienna and spent a few months at a remote camp in Norway. I drank a lot of fortifying tea and savored the imagined taste of treacle tart and Queen of Puddings,
sausage rolls, madeira cake and thin slices of buttered toast eaten in front of a cozy fire, a big furry dog of “dubious lineage” draped across my feet, a wise old cat keeping an eye on us from its perch on the mantle. I shopped for Jersey Dresses, and dinner dresses, fur hats, practical felt hats, rain coats, headscarves and Sensible Shoes.
The thing about Betty Neels—and all true Betty Fans can confirm this—is that you can read any one of her books a dozen times over the years and still feel like you’re reading it for the first time. Betty is that one true friend who is always there for you and will never let you down. There’s a reason why the 134 romance novels she penned for Mills & Boon have been published and re-released and have never gone out of circulation since her first novel, Sister Peters in Amsterdam, was introduced in 1969.
Here are the covers over the years for just one of her books (Tabitha in Moonlight, one of my Top 5 Favorite Betty Neels) from its original release (1972) to its current release. And these are just the English versions!
Betty was 60 years old when her first book was published. She was 91 when she passed away in 2001. Her last story, An Independent Woman, was released that same year.
As a writer of what today is being called Clean Romance, I find great inspiration in Betty’s life story and her writing. I can only dream of having the success that she achieved. But I take heart that her books, in which the Hero and Heroine never take the reader further than a kiss, have maintained (and very likely grown) in popularity over the years. Because of Betty, I know there will always be a place in readers hearts for sweet and decent (and well written!) romance novels.
So, Thank You, my dear good woman, Betty Neels. Spring will soon be bringing its sunshine and two new books from Yours Truly.
If you’ve never read a Betty Neels (Oh, my dear good girl!), or if you want to expand your journey into Betty Land, I recommend these sites: