Category Archives: A Writer’s Life….(article archive)

Guest Post “Better than benefits”…from Miss Lou

Anne Whitaker:

I’ve just read this brilliantly written, painfully honest account of what life is like on benefits within the UK benefits system. I know the redoubtable Miss Lou. She used to run one of the best cafes in Glasgow, UK’s West End. She is bright, talented, hard working , and possessed of a truly wicked sense of humour. Do Share this post on Facebook etc. Leave her a comment. She deserves it!

cartoon by Paul F Newman

Writer and Friend at work…

Cartoon: Paul F Newman

 

Originally posted on The redoubtable:

The Job Centre, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t so bad.

The housing benefit office, on the other hand, is definitely inspired by Dante, but as I can never decide which circle it resides in (first? fifth? seventh? a combination?) I try not to think about it too much.

Anyway, once a fortnight I – like so many others – schlepp down to the Brew with my paper booklet of disappointment and present myself for assessment. My regular adviser is actually really nice, but I do occasionally have to deal with the office harridan who seems to view job seekers as workshy scroungers who are all ‘at it’.

Like the first time I went, arriving 25 minutes early. I couldn’t afford the bus fare and I was terrified of being late – having heard about draconian sanctions – so I speed-walked, wheezing my way into the building, only to…

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On toads, work – and writing….

The poet Philip Larkin memorably asked : “Why should I let the toad work Squat on my life?”

That toad –WRITING – has squatted on my life more or less since I was born. The golden thread of consistent attachment to writing, or writing’s consistent attachment to ME, has run through the whole of my life. I have always been true to it, in my fashion, during the promiscuous twists and turns of my vocational quest.

Anne and Friend compose the latest blog post....

Anne and Friend compose the latest blog post….

At school, whilst other kids seemed to dread their composition ink exercises, I looked forward to mine. It was an opportunity to channel into focused black and white the swirling imaginative colours which whirled round my young brain, fed by my six library books a week habit. I read anything and everything.

This voracity had its downside. Victorian novelist H Rider Haggard’s myth-steeped descriptions of his characters’ adventures in Africa last century fascinated me. But da Silva, the Dutch explorer whose frozen body was found centuries after his death in a cave high up Mt. Kilimanjaro, transferred himself from King Solomon’s Mines to the wardrobe in my bedroom, on and off, for a couple of years. Getting to sleep was no mean feat with an imagination like mine!

My ‘real’ life – eating, sleeping, going to school – was incidental to my inner life which was full of the really interesting questions:

“Why are we alive, where do we go after death, do we live on several planes of existence at once, what is happening in other galaxies, if there are x million Catholics and even more Buddhists and Hindus, how come they are all Wrong and Damned and a few thousand members of the Free Church of Scotland are Right and Saved?

What would happen if you unwrapped an Egyptian mummy? I wonder if I could make a shrunken head like the Jivaro people? Why did people paint pictures on cave walls thousands of years ago? “

These issues, fed by reading, preoccupied me for years. I must have written about them, and my essays were often commended. However, attempts on leaving school to obtain my childhood exercise books were met with a bureaucratic “No”  .

During my twenties, spent in further education teaching, I  had a ‘Personally Speaking’ column in a well-known provincial Scottish island newspaper, a copy of which I was reliably informed went to the British Embassy in Peking in China every week.

I also wrote for the local paper in a small industrial town in West Lothian, Scotland, where I had my first English lecturing job in the local technical college. ‘How I was left on the shelf – and found true happiness’ was my contribution to the West Lothian Couriers Spring Brides Feature one year. “Couldn’t you have been a bit more romantic ?” was the Editor’s only comment.

Harrowed in my mid twenties by the realisation that time was speeding on apace without my having yet written an autobiography, I then began the first of what were to be many bouts of journal-keeping…….and so the writing went – on, and on, in a dazzling variety of contexts for the next several decades…..

Any writers out there with amusing writing anecdotes? Do leave them in a comment!

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550 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2012
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page


A note to writers: the gift of honest feedback….

Where would we be without constructive criticism?

One of the most useful pieces of advice I was ever given came from a newspaper editor I once worked for, a crusty old chap who called a spade a spade. “You’re too wordy, my girl!” he observed. (this was in the good old days, before my even thinking he was being offensive might have got him arrested….) “I’ve never known any piece of writing to get anything other than better by the removal of 25 per cent of its wording. Now – take “How I was left on the shelf and found true happiness” away, and chop it!”

Honestly, I did write an article with that title, for the Spring Brides feature of a provincial Scottish newspaper a few decades ago. And yes, dear reader, it actually did get published, minus 25% of its wording. Somewhere in my files I have the cutting to prove it….

Another piece of even earlier straight-from-the-shoulder feedback has just found its way to the front of my braincell. Picture the scene. Aberdeen university, the infamous Sixties. I had left my seriously overdue history essay till the very last possible evening before my second exasperated extension from my usually genial tutor had expired.

I finally stopped procrastination and began writing at one am. Many cups of coffee and cigarettes later, at 8am, the task was completed. It had to be handed in by  9am or I would not receive my History class certificate. Without that, I could not sit my degree exam. Serious business.

Burning the midnight oil....

I ran most of the way to my tutor’s office. It was pouring with rain. On the way, I somehow managed to drop one of the essay’s ten pages into a puddle. It was only rendered semi-illegible – and only the bibliography, I thought, thankful for small mercies. Made it by 9. Just.

A week later I visited my charismatic and much loved, but somewhat fierce, history tutor – Owen Dudley Edwards. He glared at me as he thrust the dishevelled bundle of paper that was my essay back at me. I scanned the title page. “Phew!!” I thought with relief. Fifty per cent. A pass!!

“This essay on ‘The Origins of the American War of Independence” Owen Dudley said severely, in words I have never forgotten, “bears all the hallmarks of the triumph of native intelligence and writing ability over little if any credible content.” There was a long pause. ” The bibliography – I had cited Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples having once flicked through it – I assume is a joke….”

There was a frosty silence. I left, not feeling as chastened as the good Mr. Edwards had intended.

“Mmmmmm” I thought to myself as I headed off to the refectory to buy a much needed bacon sandwich, ” maybe I should be a writer if I ever grow up.

That crusty newspaper editor is probably long dead. Owen Dudley Edwards is still with us, and still giving out his straight from the shoulder opinions. I know this because I heard him on the radio a couple of months ago. I am grateful to both of them for their never-forgotten feedback. It was direct, it pulled no punches. It let me know where I stood. Grit in the oyster, it helped me become a competent writer.

However, in recent times, constructive criticism seems to have morphed into something altogether much less forthright, much more timid, much more inclined to dish out indiscriminate praise and affirmation regardless of performance. Is this helpful to young people’s education and development?

My colleague Emily Cutts,  psychologist and independent thinker, has her serious doubts. Read Emily’s forthright views, published on MoreBitsFallOff.com :

Emily Cutts: Constructive criticism is a gift

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650 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2011
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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Guest Slot: The art of writing – and getting published! Interview with Harry Bingham

Of  the many scary delights of being on the Web, my favourite is never knowing who’s going to turn up! A few weeks ago writer Harry Bingham lightened my January gloom considerably by emailing me with kind words about “Writing from the Twelfth House”. Thus began another positive Web friendship with an accomplished fellow writer. Harry kindly agreed to do a post – this interesting, at times challenging, entertaining and revealing interview is the result.

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Harry Bingham has written historical fiction for HarperCollins and a couple of books on history and economics. He’s also just sold a new series of crime novels to Orion, and is the author of a bestselling guide to Getting Published. He also runs the Writers’ Workshop, which offers help and advice to first time writers.

Anne W: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?  Did you tell anyone?  If so, whom, and when?

Oh gosh, I always knew I wanted to be a writer … at least, ever since I gave up my astronaut / shopkeeper / footballer ambitions. Back when I was ten, a camera crew came to my school to film a short piece about what kids were thinking of as possible careers. Most people said things like ‘policeman’ or ‘nurse’. I said ‘author’.

Anne W: How did you go about becoming a writer? What/who were your major influences?

Um, well, I became an investment banker first. Not really a conventional path that, but forgive me – I was young. Then my wife got ill, I gave up work to look after her, and wrote my first novel while sitting at her bedside. That book was The Money Makers, and is still one of the best things I’ve ever written.

Anne W: Which writers did you love best as a child? Which writers have most deeply influenced you?

I loved Sherlock Holmes and  CS Forester and anything to do with Greek myth. And then all the classics: I got stuck into Victorian literature pretty early and chomped my way through it avidly. As for influences: I never really know. I think everything influences you to some extent. Even bad novels, you have to understand why they’re bad, why you don’t like them, what you want to do differently.

Anne W: What do you think of Ernest Hemingways’s dictum that all writers should have a “built-in, shockproof, crap detector”?

It’s essential. Writing’s a funny business. You need a kind of insane optimism to create a novel in the first place. You really do have to love your work and believe it’s great, otherwise you’d never get out of bed. When it comes to the editing, though, you need the opposite mindset: the crap detection one. You just have to go over your material relentlessly looking for the stuff that’s not OK. There’ll be a lot of it about!

Anne W: Where do you get most of your ideas from? Do you carry a notebook around to record them?

No, and I know writers are meant to do this. I’ve never carried a notebook or anything else. I don’t scribble ideas on napkins. I don’t carry pencils on buses. I just take the dogs for a walk and daydream. Sometimes those daydreams turn into books. I’m lucky that way.

Anne W: When should writers seek advice/help from other writers – and when should they just shut up and get on with it?

I think most writers need to do both. In the end, you write a book by just sitting at the damn keyboard and writing. On the other hand, it’s terribly rare that a writer can’t learn masses from detailed, tough, constructive feedback on his or her work. I’m a fairly practised writer after all (8 books published, 4 more commissioned) and I get a huge amount from my editor / agent. So I think you need both things: lonely hours, intensive feedback. It’s how nearly all writers operate.

Anne W: What has your developmental pattern been toward the stage you are at now? Has it been moderately straighforward or have you done lots of bizarre jobs along the way?

I’ve not had any bizarre jobs. I’ve always sold my books for decent money so, unlike many, I’ve more or less been able to support myself from writing. That is rare, however, and I’d urge anyone thinking seriously about writing as a career to give themselves a proper financial fallback plan. Like marrying someone really rich, that sort of thing.

Anne W: Have you gained formal qualifications in the art and craft of writing? Is this latter route any great advantage, do you think, in a writer’s development? Why/why not?

I’ve got an English O-Level, if that counts. But no: I don’t have any real qualification and I’m not truly a fan of university-level creative writing courses. I don’t think they’re nearly market-driven enough. I don’t think their success record is as strong as it ought to be. I don’t think they’re much good at teaching people how to write genre fiction. But I do think that people will have fun on a creative writing MA course. There are other, better alternatives, however. Our range of online creative writing courses, for example, is deliberately designed so that authors with strong market knowledge and excellent publication records teach the business of writing for publication. That’s, in my view, what nearly all students actually want.

Anne W: What inspired you to set up The Writers’ Workshop? Tell us something about it. How long has it been running, and how do you see it developing?

I set up the Writers’ Workshop as a way to earn a little extra money when I was between projects. So I built a website, offered editorial advice … and the manuscripts just started to pour in. We’ve now got a team of about 80 novel and other book editors offering tough, professional advice on novels, children’s fiction and most varieties of non-fiction. We also have a policy that whenever we come across material which is strong enough to be marketed, we’ll do all we can to place it with a literary agent. We obviously can’t help everyone through to publication, but we do have multiple success stories, including a number of people who have won literary prizes or become top 10 bestsellers. We also, as mentioned above, run courses. Oh, and we run the annual Festival of Writing. And various other things. You can get the full background by clicking on: The Writers’ Workshop: Your Path to Literary Agents.

Anne W: Biggest hope?

That my crime novels take off – I’m more excited by these than anything else I’ve ever done.

Anne W: Biggest worry?

That e-readers are going to kill the books trade.

Anne W: Thing you love the most?

Bringing a really beautiful book (or six) home from a bookshop.

Anne W: Thing you hate the most?

When good writers are turned down by cowardly publishers. I HATE that!

Anne W: Single best tip?

Cut your work by 10%. Then  do the same again.

Anne W: Thanks, Harry. Great stuff! Come back and talk to us again soon!

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Harry Bingham

Harry Bingham

THE WRITERS’ WORKSHOP
run by writers for writers

Reach us by email, or call us on:
0845 459 9560

www.WritersWorkshop.co.uk
info@WritersWorkshop.co.uk
7 Market Street, Charlbury, Oxon, UK OX7 3PH

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1200 words copyright Harry Bingham/ Anne Whitaker 2011
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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Constructive criticism: can we do without it?

Where would we writers be, without constructive criticism?

One of the most useful pieces of advice I was ever given came from a newspaper editor I once worked for, a crusty old chap who called a spade a spade. “You’re too wordy, my girl!” he observed. (this was in the good old days, before my even thinking he was being offensive might have got him arrested….) “I’ve never known any piece of writing to get anything other than better by the removal of 25 per cent of its wording. Now – take “How I was left on the shelf and found true happiness” away, and chop it!”

Honestly, I did write an article with that title, for the Spring Brides feature of a provincial Scottish newspaper a few decades ago. And yes, dear reader, it actually did get published, minus 25% of its wording. Somewhere in my files I have the cutting to prove it….

Another piece of even earlier straight-from-the-shoulder feedback has just found its way to the front of my braincell. Picture the scene. Aberdeen university, the infamous Sixties. I had left my seriously overdue history essay till the very last possible evening before my second exasperated extension from my usually genial tutor had expired.

I finally stopped procrastination and began writing at one am. Many cups of coffee and cigarettes later, at 8am, the task was completed. It had to be handed in by  9am or I would not receive my History class certificate. Without that, I could not sit my degree exam. Serious business.

Burning the midnight oil....

I ran most of the way to my tutor’s office. It was pouring with rain. On the way, I somehow managed to drop one of the essay’s ten pages into a puddle. It was only rendered semi-illegible – and only the bibliography, I thought, thankful for small mercies. Made it by 9. Just.

A week later I visited my charismatic and much loved, but somewhat fierce, history tutor – Owen Dudley Edwards. He glared at me as he thrust the dishevelled bundle of paper that was my essay back at me. I scanned the title page. “Phew!!” I thought with relief. Fifty per cent. A pass!!

“This essay on ‘The Origins of the American War of Independence’ ” Owen Dudley said severely, in words I have never forgotten, “bears all the hallmarks of the triumph of native intelligence and writing ability over little if any credible content.” There was a long pause. ” The bibliography – I had cited Winston Churchill’s  ‘History of the English Speaking Peoples’ having once flicked through it – I assume is a joke….”

There was a frosty silence. I left, not feeling as chastened as the good Mr. Edwards had intended.

“Mmmmmm” I thought to myself as I headed off to the refectory to buy a much needed bacon sandwich, ” maybe I should be a writer if I ever grow up.

That crusty newspaper editor is probably long dead. Owen Dudley Edwards is still with us, and still giving out his straight from the shoulder opinions. I know this because I heard him on the radio a couple of months ago. I am grateful to both of them for their never-forgotten feedback. It was direct, it pulled no punches. It let me know where I stood. Grit in the oyster, it helped me become a competent writer.

However, in recent times, constructive criticism seems to have morphed into something altogether much less forthright, much more timid, much more inclined to dish out indiscriminate praise and affirmation regardless of performance. Is this helpful to young people’s education and development?

My colleague Emily Cutts,  psychologist and independent thinker, has her serious doubts. Read Emily’s forthright views, published today on MoreBitsFallOff.com :

Emily Cutts: Constructive criticism is a gift

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600 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2010
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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Guest Slot: Resources for Web Readers and Writers by Donna Cunningham

Donna Cunningham will already be known to many of you as a world class astrologer, writer and teacher – and is now a brilliant blogger at her  SkyWriter blog, which I featured on this site in February, in my Kreativ Blogger Awards 2010.

Check out  Donna’s ebooks at Moon Maven Publications. It is my great pleasure to be featuring Donna’s writing on the Guest slot this month. She has provided a terrific and varied set of resources which I have been working my way through and finding invaluable – I have no doubt you will, too. No matter how experienced a reader or writer you are, there is always more to learn!

cartoon by Paul F Newman

Anne W and Friend write for the Web

(cartoon by Paul F Newman)

 

Internet User’s Reading Habits—

How Research Findings Impact Internet Writing

©2008 by Donna Cunningham, MSW

The most significant research into internet users’ habits has been done by the Nielsen-Norman Group. They use highly technical methods like eye-tracking cameras to discover exactly what internet visitors do when they visit a site—how long they spend on a given page, what parts of the page their eyes zero in on, which pages of a website they are most likely to visit, and how long they spend on that page.  Below are some of their research findings.  Jakob Nielson has a huge collection of pithy and useful articles at the site below.  You’ll be meeting him often in this course!

Research Findings:

“How Users Read on the Web.” Jakob Nielsen.  In their research, 79% of test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16% read word-by-word. Specific ways these findings need to be applied to website content.

“Information Foraging” Jakob Nielsen.Habits of internet visitors, whom he calls “informavores.”

“Research report:  A guide to email newsletters and usability” Dan Farber. The Nielsen-Norman group’s findings in summary form. The study found that users read email newsletters even more abruptly than they read websites.

Internet Writing Style Tips:

Here are some excellent articles by web professionals. Although they aren’t writing specifically for metaphysical sites, their advice is sound.

“Writing Style for Print vs. Web.” Jakob Nielsen.

“Six Ways to Turn Techno-Babble into Commanding Copy,” Jonathan Kranz

Amrit Hallan, “Writing persuasive website content.” (Lots of articles; worth visiting)

Continued at: “Persuasive Writing”.

“How to Write Successfully for the Web.” WikiHow,
Also see more articles on this topic at: http://www.wikihow.com/Special:LSearch?fulltext=Search&search=write+for+the+web

“15 Internet Writing Rules to Keep them Reading your Content.” Internet Based Moms

“The 10 Commandments of Internet Writing.” Garth A. Buchholtz

“Discovering that writing for the Web is different… every day, for the first time.” Excess Voice.  (Lots of articles; worth visiting)

“Make Your Copy Specific and Personal,” Nick Usborne

HEADLINES—The Key to Grabbing a Website Visitor’s Interest:

Market research says that 8 out of 10 people read the headlines but only 2 out of 10 read the main copy.

“Your headlines are the strongest weapons in the arsenal of your copywriting.” Amrit Hallan.

“10 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas That Work.” Brian Clark, Copyblogger:

“Headlines Make The Difference (and the Sale)!” Tony L. Callahan.

“Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines” Jakob Nielsen.   (Strong, researcher)

“How to Write Magnetic Headlines.” Copyblogger. (Links to several good Articles)

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550 words copyright Anne Whitaker/Donna Cunningham 2010
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Guest Slot: “Shaping the Writer” by Annie Evett

Last year I was fortunate to come across that diverse and stimulating, not to mention inspiring, writers’ site Write Anything. Our mutual love of nature, and writers’ efforts to capture its large and small wonders, brought me into contact with writer Annie Evett from that site. It greatly pleases me this month to have Annie’s account of growing up in the Australian bush and its profound influence on her as a writer. All our childhood experiences are unique. But some are more unique than others! Over to you, Annie ….

Although I dislike the pigeon holing of genre based writing, it would appear from readers’ feedback, that my writing success lies within my descriptive narrative; specifically that of a setting. Anne contacted me a little while back to ask if I might write on whether one’s earliest memories of environment influence one’s main style of writing.

In particular she was interested in my experience within the bush and my love of nature writing. Noticing minute detail is important to a writer building a realistic and believable character or scene – and to country folk relying on specific information in order to diagnose sick animals, fix machinery or identify an area in danger of bushfire.  The latter are skills which seem to be ingrained from an early age.

Rural life taught me the zen of chicken taming, the aikido of sheep handling, the philosophy of cattle herding and the oneness felt between a rider and horse on a long dusty road. With our modern society bent on cotton padding every bump, growing up in the bush taught me to take and make risks, be proactive, inventive and constantly seek answers both from within and outside. Valuable lessons for any writer.

Nature writing binds characters to the natural wealth and expanse of the wilderness with words of respect, admiration, and empathy.  It marries up the divorce between nature in the plastic world and  reminds us in every phrase, that nature has its eventual dominant place. Growing up as I did, instilled this belief deeply within my soul.

 

Annie - contemplative mode

Annie - contemplative mode

The eldest of six children, born to a shearer and housemaid who subsequently set themselves up within the fine wool industry, I lived my first seventeen years within the Australian bush on a mixed produce property . My primary school had up to twenty students enrolled; the nearest town boasted a population of nearly five thousand people.  Despite only living half an hour to town, modern living and experiences such as going to the movies or having a milkshake (in fact any sort of fast food) was something I didn’t indulge until I left home and went to University in the big smoke (our capital city). I believe this extended innocence has given me the opportunity to look at situations with unsullied eyes and the ability to twist things to a different perspective.

Daily childhood experiences involving the stark reality of drought, flood and bushfires, the brutal honesty of the cycle of life and the truth in death  colour my writing.

Memories cutting deeply into my psyche include droughts where the piles of carcasses grew daily. Bullets were too expensive to waste on the dying; so children were sent to cut throats and drag bodies behind utes. (Ed: a type of pickup truck) Memories, too,  of bushfires devastating vast expanses of land, native animals and farm equipment – caused by the careless flick of a cigarette from a passing car, or the malicious act of bored teenagers from town. It is through these eyes I am able to ‘cut to the bone’ of a story, revealing its inner strengths without being distracted by sidelines or flattery.

 

Seasonal chore aged 5 - Annie plucks turkey

My childhood days would start with a seasonal chore, such as fruit or vegetable harvesting, mustering animals or milking with the children saved only by the need to get changed and catch a battered bus to go to school. Far from thinking this was a prison camp, in no way would I change a single memory or experience. Indeed, I would wish a similar childhood for my own children.

Imagine a wondrous childhood where over three thousand acres of land lay to be explored on horseback? Where it was safe to leave after breakfast and not come home till dark? Where at anytime your pet list included a half dozen chickens, up to twenty motherless lambs or calves, horses, ducks, goats and dogs?

My first paid job was as a roustabout for a shearing team when I was thirteen. Here, I met some of the outback’s true characters; a deeper appreciation for humour, regardless of the situation, was born. I feel privileged that my parents pulled us all out of school (just before my final year exams) so that we could go droving for a month. I joined the likes of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson on horseback; those were hours of staring at the moving masses of animals ahead, and the great silent expanses of the open road. You cannot but be provoked to poetry, music or creative writing when surrounded by the palette of moving scenery and blissful solitude.

I was unaware that stories of my childhood sounded straight from a film set, naively believing that the majority of people understood the fine balance we humans hold with the land, animals and the gift we call life.  Folk from the bush tend to be quieter, more reserved; but in no way should that be perceived as less intelligent. With the stillness and quiet comes a deeper understanding of and connection to the fragility of life – of the inner sanctuary of strength of character, and appreciation of friendship and community bonds.

As writers, our anthropocentrism runs deep. Blinded by the politics and theatrics of human relationships, we forget that a piece can be just as interesting without the people, as dramatic simply by utilising the environment and the landscape. Caught by the busyness and artificiality of their surroundings, many writers forget to indulge in the quiet inner space, or of the peace which can be attained by noticing the delicate details etched in any leaf, blade of grass or flower. I feel blessed to have been exposed to the harshness of the outback life, now able to harness the solitude and imagery it has gifted me as a writer.

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Annie Evett

Annie Evett

Annie writes a weekly column for Write Anything  (http://writeanything.wordpress.com ) and Type A Mom (http://www.typeamom.net/mom-types/suburban-moms.html) , is coauthor of an online adventure series Captain Juan (http://www.captainjuan.com) and has written a survival guide for parents – Reclaim Sex After Birth. (http://reclaimsexafterbirth.com) Continue your discovery of her writing at her site ( http://annieevett.com)

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1100 words copyright Annie Evett/ Anne Whitaker 2010
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page