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About This Blog

Hello writers and those of you who love books! Welcome to the Grassroots Writer’s Guild, the blogging home of Connie Kirchberg and Julia Simpson-Urrutia. The two of us have spent the majority of our lives as writers. It’s our goal with this blog to share our experiences, both good and bad, with other writers like you in the hope we might provide a bit of occasional inspiration and solace for your own writing endeavors.

Please feel free to comment on any of our posts.  We do our best to keep them writing-related, but let’s face it, a blog is a place to sound off, and sometimes that’s what we do. Most of the time, however, our posts will relate directly to the business of writing.

So, sit back, relax, and start clicking away on the links to the right. You’ll see that both of us decided to implement a “get to know the writer” approach by including personal experiences and family photos. We discuss the ideas behind our books and share our experiences regarding agents and traditional publishing. You may decide to go with a less intimate approach on your blog. The point is to figure out a marketing strategy that’s right for you and implement it. A personal blog is a great place to start. Remember, the person best equipped to sell your book(s) is the person who knows and cares the most about it. And that would be you.


G3There are times when people really and truly should write, and those times are not always completely concerned with writing for money.  The motivation may be (somewhat) about money, but the end result can be priceless and transcend money.

I have felt much in tune with these non-financial factors in my capacity as writing teacher as well as that of writing judge.

In the first case, I have been allowed into the lives of students through their essays, and have learned what they are coping with, what they have learned from, and what they are aiming for. Sometimes the goal a writer describes is something as insignificant as being happy to go to work. Everything my students write tends to impact and inspire me. This is useful writing, from student to teacher. Though I take advantage of these opportunities, to demonstrate where an apostrophe shouldn’t go (as on every single –s) or where a semicolon needs to be replaced by a comma, or vice versa–knowledge I excel at after teaching it for a decade and a half–these essays inspire me in their content and spirit.

One young lady who has followed me from English 252 to English 125 confessed that she put a happy face on her Facebook Wall disclosure that she worked with her sister. In reality, she was not as happy as the happy face indicated. In fact, she wrote, she had been hiding a bad attitude about her job. As a young college-attending mother of a baby, all she really could think of was whether she had expressed sufficient milk and if she would pass her classes. The last thing she wanted to do was log eight hours a day in an office with her sister (who was kind enough to insist upon employing her).

Her essay resonated with me deeply because I have been guilty of harboring a bad attitude–not always, but at times–about my own job, which is to teach composition (grammar, punctuation, essay form and critical thinking) to college level students. Naturally I would rather be an acclaimed author. Honestly, sometimes I wonder how stupid I could possibly be.

This same young lady explained that she has started changing her attitude. She finds that filing or any other mundane duty she has had to be nagged to accomplish is becoming something she takes pride in, thanks to her change in perspective.

Her words resonate. I won’t say she changed me, because I was already changing. When I get into someone else’s writing and forget myself, forget where or who I am, and think about someone else’s day, family or life, that is profound. This has always been one of the pluses of being a writing teacher.

This past summer, for the second time but to a far greater extent, I participated likewise as a writing judge. While many of the books I read were similar to each other, just as student essays can sometimes be, there were absolutely unique entries. Some of these entries were by writers whose lives had been so different or unexpected, who were so brave or whose thoughts were so profound, that again I was seized wholly. When I say I forgot myself, I do not mean there were no thoughts or life parallels that did not resonate–there were plenty. Those were the vibrations in words (even if beset by grammatical errors) that linked me to the writers.

Writing does that. It links humanity, make us one and gives us a sense of communion. It used to happen in letters, although these have gone by the wayside.  Such bonding still most often happens in writing. Social gatherings, though useful, are liable to ostentation, discrimination or other weaknesses that may prevent noble human interchange.

This kind of writing–the kind that will probably not make anyone rich–is very important, whether it comes from students or aspiring writers who have churned out a first “masterpiece.”

Tonight I feel lucky and blessed, to be a reader who both teaches and judges writing.

 

 

 

When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I used to review books for the English language newspapers. (I did that under various names, for the papers were competitive.) The first books reviewed were purchased from the local bookstores. Usually a publication will under no circumstances use a review of a book that has been out in the world for a year, but in the 1980s, the local English-writing competition was so sparse in Saudi Arabia, copy editors were delighted to receive coherently written reviews. Sooner or later, everything I ever submitted was printed.tailypo!

Some of my favorite books were discovered through that hunt for books to review. The Story of my Wife by Milan Fust was a bookstore purchase–and I still consider it a classic, about a jealous sea captain who imagines all kinds of things about his wife.  Later, when I sent clips (by mail) to book publishers, I obtained a fair number of books for my sons, like Never Shave a Camel by Dr. Peter Rowan, Tailypo! by Jan Wahl and Weird Wolf by Margery Cuyler. The first one seemed region-specific, a good choice for an expatriate audience living in Saudi Arabia. Such titles, found in catalogs, were always put at the top of my request list. Tailypo! turned out to be too scary to be read more than once. After the first read, my children begged me to close the book. Hmmm.

the knightHugely talented authors came to my attention. I loved Ella Leffland’s writing in The Knight, Death and the Devil, a fictionalized account (that attempts to stick close to the truth) of Hermann Goring, Hitler’s right hand man. You may think whatever you like of me when I tell you that I wept through the sad ending of Goring’s love story with his wife. Leffland wrote so movingly I had to purchase another copy of the book for my father, a World War II buff. He read every page.

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Paul Auster

Paul Auster’s Moon Palace gripped me completely. I thought it one of the finest books have ever read. In fact, I would like to read it again (Some of my books, alas, did not make it back with me to the USA–insignificant readers can only ship so much.) I have the review in one of my notebooks and am not surprised to see that it  came to me via London (Faber and Faber)–Auster has long been appreciated in Europe far more than he ever has in the USA, American though he may be. (I wonder why he did not follow Henry James’ path and become a British national.)

Naturally it takes a while to review books; it is not as easy as, say interviewing someone. Since I wrote every type of article a housewife can for the local press (including travel), I will admit that book reviews are among the hardest. But the richness! The tapestry and enchantment! How many hours have I wrestled with Virago Press’s list of upcoming titles, knowing I could not confuse the representative by requesting too many. I had to keep the number down to as many as I could read, for I might receive all of them. The reps were asked to send airmail, which they would have done anyway–anything by boat was subject to inspection by Saudi censors. I cannot explain why boat was more suspect than airplanes. I guess there are more vermin on boats. (At the ports, perhaps a subject for another day, my valuable antique books were destroyed.)

British publishers were not only closer, but I discovered my tastes are more European/British than they are American. That is probably a damning comment.

Yet I adore Stephen King!

Let the above comment rest as a glowing stamp of my American identity–I am the roving American whose tastes often jump to the other side of the pond.

At times I have felt inclined to look up those writers whose books I reviewed while in Jeddah. Auster is in New York and not too concerned with writing a new book; Bernice Rubens, beautiful writer that she was, has passed on; Geraldine Brooks was kind enough to respond to fan mail in a letter I will cherish forever. Ella Leffland, born in 1931, lives near me, in San Francisco. (Oh my goodness, would she let me visit her??)   Michael Foreman, author of The Game of all Wars, turns out to be British (I should have known), and of course Upamanyu Chatterjee is Indian although I do not know where he resides. It appears the book I reviewed, English,August: An Indian Story (and a really good one!) is his most

Upmanyu Chatterjee

Upmanyu Chatterjee

famous work.

How lucky I was to have reviewed it!

why-you-should-invest-in-a-professional-writer-for-your-businessWhen Connie and I began our blog at wordpress, we did so as two writers who understood the need for a web presence. That need has altered over the years while the presence of everyone marketing everything–actors their shows, authors their books, soap makers their products–has probably risen a thousand percent. 

I still believe the internet is a writer’s tool, but how I use it reflects my changing needs. That has got to be true for every writer. I would not dream of instructing people how to be better writers (outside my classroom) since there are some folks who already do that fantastically well, like John Yeoman of Writer’s Village. 

Others, like Kimberley Grabas, discuss marketing online for self-published authors. There is no earthly reason for me to stick my pinkie finger into either pie since both of these writers do what they do formidably well. Additionally, writing phenomenon Hope Clark sends out a newsletter to any writer who wants one, encouraging others while listing contests and other opportunities. (She has become an institution unto herself.)

So what does a writer need the internet for when not Googling agents? The presence is the main thing: a steady potpourri of life interests, steady as the changing of seasons if that is all one can muster. Most job-holding, family-nurturing writers with hobbies on the side (mine is doll making) will be able to manage just about that. When the time comes, due to a book sale or a sudden maniacal desire to scuba dive for sunken ships, those interests will be reflected on that writer/scuba diver’s blog.scuba diver

I don’t think any writer should beat him or herself up over not being more present than that. The internet is a strange thing: for bloggers, it may sometimes feel like a mirror that the occasional stranger will walk past.

 

 

 

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The tent for all Connie’s carpentry equipment.

Anyone who visits this blog will notice that Connie Kirchberg has not posted in quite some time. That does not mean people do not read her books. I can vouch for the fact that they do. Her books sell. The readers give compliments. Maggie Inside Out is a crime fiction novel that my own students have been enjoying!

But Connie has been busy and it has not been at a computer (although once in a while she finds herself in front of one).  While she does do computer work for her husband’s business, and can rightly be called his “on retainer” associate with computer expertise, among other things, Connie has many other talents. One of these is carpentry, which she has dabbled in for years. She is the kind of gal who can fix and remodel all on her own, although her husband Jody is just as capable.  They can often be found doing team work!

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Connie’s beautiful small gazebo made to shade a bench!

 

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All of these structures were built by my friend. The larger gazebo was built some time ago (note the curtains she has hung inside it.) Just to the left of that gazebo is the shaded breezeway where Connie does most of the carpentry work.

Last time I visited Connie, I had a few surprises, all in the back yard. The photos tell a lot of that tale. I found the ambiance inspiring. I have always wanted to learn carpentry, but I know it is a lot of work.

So when writers aren’t writing books or articles, it stands to reason they are doing something else. In Connie’s case, a lot of wood has been involved.

I am so impressed. Can’t wait to see what she has done next!

 

51gOfGWpGTL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Madame Blavatsky, The Mother of Modern Spirituality A biography by Gary Lachman (2012 Tarcher/Penguin)

Madame Blavatsky, The Mother of Modern Spirituality, is the biography of a woman who died over a hundred years ago and whose name still inspires controversy among people who interest themselves in proofs of spiritual realities that are unexplainable in terms of our material mundane existence.

In other words, she could pull real rabbits out of her hat.

I came to this book from two perspectives. One was as a Muslim who believes in angels, jinn, and the supernatural. In college, I studied Ibn Khaldun, an eighth century (hijra) Muslim scholar, best known for his Muqaddimah or Introduction to History. He devotes a large section to magic. His contemporary, Ibn Battuta, a Muslim version of Marco Polo, reported demonstrations of mind-boggling feats in various lands (like India) similar to situation/events explored in scientific or quasi-scientific TV documentaries that are treated as mysteriously defying explanation.

I found myself wondering what Madame Blavatsky felt her life mission was, and what revelation her abilities made in her own mind. The author, Gary Lachman, is helpful because he examines the vicissitudes in the life of Madame Blavatsky and her alleged proofs of extrasensory powers with an open but cautious mind. His evaluations are made from every angle to the extent of offering possible methods of deception. Until the final page, readers need not feel Lachman is attempting to convert them into Theosophists.

During Madame Blavatsky’s lifetime, a Theosophist would have meant a member of the Theosophical Society. One of the mission statements produced by said society (and which Lachman notes still guides its many branches today) was

1. To form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color.

2. The study of ancient and modern religions, philosophies, and sciences, and the demonstration of the importance of such study.

3. The investigation of the unexplained laws of nature and the psychical powers latent in man.

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Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott–Civil War Union Officer and later convert to Buddhism whose picture has been on Sri Lanka stamps.

Born in the Ukraine in 1831, Blavatsky had enough romantic drama in her life and soul to fuel a TV series. She was the frail infant of a likewise frail teenage mother, Helena Andreyevna, the latter being daughter to a princess. Blavatsky’s mother achieved acclaim shortly after having her first child through her writing. Helena Andreyevna wrote under the pen name, “Zenaida R-va” and was nicknamed the “Russian Georges Sand” by at least one critic.

Blavatsky’s father was a descendant of German nobility, a captain in the Royal Horse Artillery, later a colonel. He had a traditionally 19th century male chauvinist attitude towards his wife’s “career.” Blavatsky’s grandfather was a governor; she had access to his large library. Lachman tells us that Blavatsky, her mother, and her maternal grandmother were all noted for intelligence and self-education.

The psychological implications of Blavatsky’s family circle are satisfactorily explored. Apart from governesses, Blavatsky had “extracurricular input” from her serf, Baranig Bouyak, an aged healer who could allegedly read the future. At a very young age, Blavatsky claimed a secret friend or protector whom she saw in dreams (and who was probably one of the “masters” referred to in much the rest of the book—all her masters seemed to have been from India).

When she was six, Blavatsky accompanied her mother and maternal grandfather (trustee for the nomadic Kalmuck Buddhist tribes of Astrakhan) on a 1,000 mile journey to Central Asia. The sojourn lasted a year, affording the girl her first contact with Buddhism. Buddhism was the only religion to which Blavatsky ever formally laid claim, much later in life, and even then, it was not in a

Чаепитие_калмыков

Kalmuk nomads

traditional sense.

Blavatsky’s double life (worldly and inner) began at the age of 16. Her sister, Vera, talked of strange powers Blavatsky evinced from childhood, able to put pigeons to sleep, create knocking sounds in whatever vicinity she was in, or make pertinent objects materialize. These supernatural parlor tricks were at first prolific with the young woman, but later she showed increasing reluctance to indulge requests, saying that they were distracting to her purpose—and the purpose of her secret “masters.”

Blavatsky wrote two massive books: Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. She saw manuscripts in the air, which she had to read backwards. These were her references and account for her horrible punctuation.

Blavatsky’s travels through Cairo, Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon brought her into contact with Muslims including the Islamic reformer Al-Afghani. Of course she was familiar with Christianity. While her life purpose seemed to have been emphasizing the fact that spirit matters more than the body, there is no clear demonstration in this biography that she held out any spiritual benefits to her followers or that she believed in God.

Lachman tells us that the “masters” were angry with Blavatsky towards the end of her life for sharing too much special knowledge with crass Westerners.

The reader may wonder how the “masters” were not able to predict this dissatisfying outcome. They could have avoided wasted effort in guiding and protecting her.

 

ImageIn my exploration of self-published titles, I have come upon a gem: Inside/Outside. This memoir, by Jenny Hayworth, tells the tale of a woman who comes from a long line of sexually abused children in a family/religious community that refuses to acknowledge sins among men (heads of household). No doubt there are exceptions, but her life story demonstrates the pressure that is brought to bear upon victims in the Jehovah’s Witness society in which she was raised. She left the cult and was dis-fellowshipped, which means everyone who meant anything in her life, her friends and family, mother and father, was forced to ignore her existence as if she was dead. This castigation brought on seriously health-destabilizing stress issues for herself and her children. I highly recommend this book. It is gripping, informative and helpful in drawing parallels. Hayworth is a good writer and she knows how to deliver her story.

If you have ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes with the Jehovah’s Witnesses who knock at your door, this book may bring a little light. They are a society like any other, and among the more rigid.

Yet contrary to what the reader might expect, Inside/Outside is by no means a condemnation of religion, but rather of human ego and intolerance. It is an insightful reflection into one woman’s experience of the chaotic pain wreaked by unreasoning control that is enforced in the name of any kind of dogmatic system. Hayworth’s subsequent acknowledgment of kindness from followers of all types of spiritual systems demonstrates her keen powers of rationality. She has been through much and her story, though dark and powerful, has light at the end. It is a commentary on the human situation and the struggle for the guise of superiority, no matter what banner society flouts. I cannot say enough good things about it.It is available on Amazon.

 

 

I have read more self-help books than I would like to remember (as has Connie) through the sublime position of judging for contests. There are all kinds of self-help books in the world. You would never think that so many self-help books are published each year, not if you walked through a bookstore. While those places (with cash registers) are becoming rarer, I would still not have guessed from browsing Amazon or Barnes and Nobles online, where quality fiction is presented in a changing carousel.

Well, now I know. Self help books are printed in yearly profusion and some of them have made a bundle of bucks–notably The Secret by Rhonda Byrne and Think and Grow Rich by Nap0leon Hill, which are both about making money come zinging out of the stratosphere and adhering to your skin.

Then there are the apocalyptic Christian self-help, the easy-going Christian self-help, the spirit-guide (occult) self-help, the daily diary or journal self-help, the how-to-face-death self help, the love nature self-help, the how-to-overcome divorce , the dog is your best friend self-help and the low self-esteem self-help. And more.

But I have yet to see one  about how to deal with bad neighbors. If a book like that had any good tricks in it, I might even buy it.

We have an alley bordering the back of our house. Some new renters have come to a house that is very close. They use the garage, which opens onto the alleyway, as a pool hall, rapper disco, gambling and possibly cock-fighting party zone. M***F**** is the main compound word in the lyrics of the songs they play. These are not the kind of people one should talk to. I daresay they are not aware anyone else exists in the universe, and if they are aware, they do not care.  garage rappers

So where are the books to help me cope? I am so sorry that all those self-help writers in their ivory towers or Hawaiin grottos do not know that just possibly, a few hundred thousand readers might actually profit not from journaling about our disappointments or lack of self-esteem but from reading a really well written self help book for people with bad neighbors.

 

 

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