Understanding Autism

April is Autism Awareness Month and while most of us know about autism or have heard many of us aren’t very clear about what the phrase “on the spectrum” really means.

I recently took on the task of writing a feature article in honor of Autism Awareness Month for the April edition of my local neighborhood magazine.

As a writer, I’m sometimes assigned to write a story on a topic I know next to nothing about. While it can be intimidating to tackle an unfamiliar subject, I enjoy the research and discovery process. The real task is putting together the information I have gathered in an interesting way that will educate readers.

I knew very little about autism when I took on this story. I began conducting research and interviewed the Marketing and Development Director of a non-profit in Rochester, NY called AutismUp that offers support for families dealing with an autism diagnosis.

autism_awareness_month

I learned that autism is as a complex disorder of brain development that affects the way an individual perceives the world. It usually involves communication challenges that make social interaction difficult and a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors. Symptons can can range from social challenges to delay in motor skills and unusual responses to sensory input. Because the symptoms and severity of autism vary widely, each individual with autism has different challenges, strengths and needs.

As the symptoms of autism vary, so do the paths for treatment, which is often tailored to address the needs of each individual. I learned that nearly all children and adults with autism benefit from therapies that can reduce their symptoms and increase their skills and abilities.

The real discovery I made and what I hope readers will take away is that a “cure” for autism isn’t what is needed. What is essential is understanding and acceptance.

No matter the subject, I always write with the intention to inform, engage and perhaps even inspire readers. I was glad to write this story, and I hope it helps others in the community to better understand autism.

Feel free to check out an online portfolio of my stories, here.

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Books for Writers: Writing Down the Bones

Whenever I face a writing roadblock, I turn to my bookshelf for help. Most recently, in an attempt to overcome my self-doubt, I went to my bookshelf and pulled down Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. There are a lot of things I can share about this book, but I will focus on the things that were most helpful for me.

Goldberg emphasizes writing as a practice, one that we should live out daily. She attunes daily writing to a runner who warms up before a race: just as a runner must stretch and warm the muscles, the writer must stretch and warm up the voice. It’s part of what Goldberg calls “composting.”

“Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories.”

Writing down our observations, thoughts and memories is what leads us to our poems, our short stories, our settings, our characters. Not all of what we write will be good or usable but that’s why it is practice. Write about everything, write whatever moves you to put pen to paper. This is one bit of inspiration I am trying to incorporate into my writing life.

Another great takeaway from Writing Down the Bones is the importance of detail. Details breathe life into our stories. Goldberg says to be specific: “Give things the dignity of their names.” Details bring us into the present, into the moment. Plus, she adds, “Tossing in the color of the sky at the right moment lets the piece breathe a little more.” She goes on to say, “It is important to say the names of who we are, the places we have lived, and to write the details of our lives. …We have lived; our moments are important. This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history, to care about the orange booths in the coffee shop in Owatonna.”
The short chapters in Writing Down the Bones can be read sequentially or not, as they all stand alone so that you can open to any chapter and read it if you wish.

If you are feeling stuck, unsure of yourself or uninspired, open to any chapter that is of interest to you. You are sure to find inspiration within this book’s pages.

 

My all-time favorite book on writing is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. You can read my post about it here.

Writers, what books have been most helpful to you?

Author Visit: Sonja Livingston

In my home city of Rochester, New York, we are fortunate to have an amazing literary non-profit called Writers and Books. Just the name of it sounds magical to a fiction writer and bookworm like me!

In addition to offering writing classes and workshops to kids and adults, the center hosts readings and talks by visiting and regional authors. Amazing, right? One of the programs they offer is called, If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book. Each year, Writers and Books selects a book for the Rochester Reads program, then hosts a series of events around that book. I’m in favor of any program that gets an entire community excited about reading!

This year’s pick for Rochester Reads was Sonja Livingston’s collection of personal essays, Queen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses. I became a fan of Sonja Livingston after reading her first book, Ghostbread in which she shares stories of living in poverty as one of seven children with nearly as many fathers. She writes in honest but not overly flowery language in a way that doesn’t seek pity, it merely asks to be heard and understood.

When I learned that the Rochester native was going to be in town, I knew I had to take advantage of the opportunity to meet her.

There were several events held around town leading up to her visit and multiple readings during her stay in Rochester. I attended a reading at the local library and found myself in awe of how down-to-earth this talented writer was as she stood at a podium in front of a room full of people talking about her life and her work.

Sonja Livingston

One of my favorite moments came during the Q&A portion of the evening when Sonja was asked about her writing process. The part of the question that interested me most was, “How do you know when you’re done?”

As a writer, this is something I often struggle with – at what point do the revisions end? I was eager to hear Sonja’s answer. She responded that, even as she read to us from her published collection of essays, she still found spots that she would like to edit.

She went on to say that she gets each piece to a point that she feels good about it. It was reassuring to hear that even a published writer doesn’t always get to the point where they feel their work is perfect. Later in the evening, she talked about how she might do as many as fifteen complete revisions on one single essay – but that she loves it.

I was fortunate enough to have my book signed and to talk briefly with Sonja. It is such a privilege to meet a writer whose work I so admire.  I’m excited to add Ghostbread to my collection of signed books on my shelf.

Livingston just released another collection, Ladies Night at the Dreamland. I look forward to reading this collection as well.

Have you attended an author talk? What was your experience like?

The start of something new

I recently had a milestone birthday. That’s right, I turned 30.

Thirty always seemed to me an age where I’d finally be an adult and I’d have it all figured out.

Well, I don’t have it all figured out – not even close. In fact, I’m less sure of everything now than I was when I finished college. It turns out, many of my friends and colleagues share a similar sentiment. We have found ourselves in vocations we never imagined or on paths that veered in an unexpected direction. The lives we envisioned for ourselves are far from the lives we are living and in some cases our goals or dreams seem further away and more unattainable than ever.

FRIENDS quote

So what is one to do when life is not going as planned? I’ll tell you what I did. I quit my job.

I left a full-time, nine-to-five job with a steady paycheck. Why, you ask? Some might say I should be happy to have a job at all. Some might call me ungrateful or selfish or even a little crazy.

I had to take a step back. I noticed what differentiated me from those I worked with was passion. Every day I saw people who were passionate about their careers and their passion had led them to great success. I just wasn’t passionate about my job.

Sometimes the path to finding what you want to do begins with finding what you don’t want to do.

The good news is, although some people may really seem to have their lives put together, almost nobody really has it all figured out. Even that girl in your yoga class with her impossibly white teeth and her toned-tush who always has the cutest yoga pants – even she doesn’t have it all figured out. We’re all just making it up as we go along.

So for now, I’m going to take some time to decide what’s next. I’m going to get back to blogging, focus on writing, maybe take a class or two and see what opportunities are out there.

There’s a chance that this will be the best decision I ever made. This new beginning will give me the opportunity to figure that out.

 

Now let’s hear from you: When you were younger, what age did you see as being “an adult?” In what ways has reality contrasted with your idea of what you imagined your life would be like at this stage?

 

Resources for Submitting to Literary Magazines

For years, I have wanted to submit my writing to a literary publication or a contest.

Each time I have ventured into the world of literary magazines, I have become so overwhelmed, so daunted by the quality of work I have read in them, I have retracted, retreated with my tail between my legs thinking, “Wow. This stuff is amazing, my work would never make it into a journal like this.”

Lit Mags

But I kept writing. And as the years have passed, my writing has improved bit by bit. I thought that eventually, there would become a day that I would feel, “Yes, I am ready to submit to a lit mag!” That I would get a piece to such near-perfection that I would feel completely confident submitting for publication. But that moment has never come and frankly, I doubt that it ever will.

I will always have doubts. I will always wonder is a piece is completely finished, truly “ready.” But I could spend years, a lifetime even, telling myself that my piece isn’t ready yet, finding (or creating) flaws, discovering passages to rework or remove. There will always something that we could change about a story or improve upon.

I came across this line in an article about summer submissions, and the timing couldn’t be better:

“Here’s a funny thing about success: If you keep waiting for the right time to go out and get it, you might end up waiting your whole life.”

There you have it.

I do finally have a story that is more polished, more ready than any other story I’ve written before. And so, my trusted writer friend and I have decided that for both of us, it is time to push the baby bird out of the nest. We have read each other’s work, made corrections and suggestions, seen our stories through revisions. It’s time.

I’ve been doing my research, and putting together an excel spreadsheet (yes) of publications to potentially submit to either for this story or down the road.

I’ve only just begun, but I thought I’d share some resources I have found helpful in my research:

Poets and Writers – This is an invaluable resource for writers. Visit the Tools for Writers section of their website for a searchable database of literary magazines and their editorial policies, submission guidelines and contact information. If you subscribe to the magazine, they publish details about creative writing contests—including poetry contests, short story competitions, essay contests, awards for novels, and more which they make available on their website as well.

Your local library or bookstore – Libraries and bookstores may have literary journals you can browse through. Check used bookstores for past issues!

Writer’s Market – This is a great tool to find places to sell your writing. You can also try Poet’s Market, and Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, (all published by Writer’s Digest Books,) which give submission guidelines and detailed contact information. (Hint: your library may have these available for loan, too!)

Journal of the Month – I blogged about this topic recently and highly recommend Journal of the Month for any writer who is looking to publish their work. This is a great and inexpensive way to get exposed to different literary journals and get an idea of what kind of work they publish and what they are looking for.

What Editors Want – This article written by The Review Review is a must read for writers submitting their work to literary magazines. I found a lot of helpful hints.

Twitter – Yes, social media can be useful! Find a lit mag you think you might like to submit to, and visit their website. You may be able to read some of their current or archived content. If the publication is on social media, follow them on Twitter (or Facebook) and get friendly reminders of when they are reading or learn about upcoming contests. At least I can feel like I’m being somewhat productive while scrolling through my Twitter feed…

 

Writers – please help me add to this list! What resources have you found helpful in preparing to submit your work? I’d love to hear your recommendations!

Yoga for Writers

I’m the type of person who has a hard time sticking to any fitness routine for any length of time.

I am notorious for getting fitness videos to workout to in my living room. I’ve done Tae-bo with Billy Blanks and more recently the 30 Day Shred and Six Week Six Pack with Jillian Michaels. (Note that I did not stick with these long enough to either become shredded, or get a six pack) I enjoy them for a while but can’t seem to commit for much more than a few weeks.

I’ve tried the gym and it just isn’t for me. I can’t get past learning all the gym etiquette much less  muster up the motivation to make sense of all those machines. I’ve tried taking classes with the latest fitness trends: there was Jazzercise and Zumba … but I eventually grew too bored (or too broke) to keep up with them.

I’ve heard great things about Yoga and have wanted to try it for a while –  okay, years. As a person who works at desk all day, then comes home to write at a laptop, I thought I could benefit from some yoga.

Yoga lotus pose

Image courtesy of MeditationMusic.net

Yoga is known to strengthen and stretch the muscles and improve flexibility, improve blood circulation, counteract stress, and improve flexibility.

Whenever I am interested in learning more about something, one of the first things I do is read about it. So naturally I ran (drove – I do not run) to my local library and picked up a stack of books and DVDs on the subject.

NOTE: There are several different methods of Yoga, all which have different benefits – they’re not all about bending yourself up like a pretzel! My practice so far has consisted mostly of Hatha and Vinyasa Yoga.

After doing some initial research, I hopped onto YouTube and found Yoga with Adriene. Her beginner videos felt like just the right place to start. They were introductory in their style with helpful hints about focusing on breath, and connecting to the earth. Her Foundations of Yoga videos are a great way to get comfortable with various poses.

Then I found DoYogaWithMe.com – tons of completely FREE videos you can stream online! The videos are high quality and with so many to choose from you’re sure to find something that feels good for you. What’s so great about this site is that you can sort the videos by level and/or length and focus on your needs.

In last month or so, I have added yoga to my life slowly, anywhere from 2-5 times a week as my schedule allows. What I love about yoga is that I don’t need to rework my schedule to fit in a little bit each day. I can start by waking up 20 minutes earlier and doing some gentle yoga to start my day, or do a longer routine to unwind after work or before going to bed.

Just a week or so ago I woke up feeling tense and seriously achy. I did a twelve minute yoga routine for the neck and shoulders and felt so much better afterward!

If you are interested in yoga, here are a few tips for getting started.

Yoga Tips for Beginners

  • Begin by learning some of the  basics and vocabulary of yoga. If you jump right into doing yoga without understanding the language and poses, you may get a little hung-up. A few basic poses I learned before beginning were child’s pose, cat/cow, cobbler’s pose, and the well-known downward dog.
  • I am of the mindset, “try it before you buy it.” You may feel that you need to run out to get a mat, blocks and bolsters, buy DVDs and fancy yoga pants and workout gear. You don’t need to invest a ton of money to begin yoga. I have begun doing yoga completely free (and in my sweats.)
  • Be sure to start with routines like gentle yoga or yoga for beginners before moving on to more advanced routines and strenuous poses. Start with what feels good!
  • Once you are comfortable, check out your local gym to see what Yoga classes are offered that fit with your schedule. (Or, if you’re like me, don’t!)

Yoga Tips for Writers:

  • Visit DoYogaWithMe.com and be sure to check out the office yoga videos for short sessions focusing on the neck, back and shoulders.
  • When you’re feeling tense during the workday or during a long writing session, take a break to stretch for a few minutes every hour or so. Find a short yoga routine you can do in your office, or even right in your chair!
  • If you suffer from wrist pain from long hours at the keyboard like I do, check out the five minute stretching routine for the wrists and Yoga for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

Finally, I feel I have found a routine I can commit to. Granted, I’m not exactly doing cardio with this practice and don’t expect to see me standing on my head anytime soon. But I have immensely enjoyed the stretching and relaxation that yoga has brought to my life.

I’d love to hear from you! Do you practice yoga? Do you want to start? Feel free to share your experience in the comments below.

Journal of the Month

In my last update post, I mentioned that I am researching literary magazines in preparation for submitting my first short story.

I am beginning to think that finding the right lit mags to submit to (along with determining each of their guidelines and requirements) might turn out to be more time consuming and painstaking than the writing and revising process.

Admittedly, this daunting task is what has deterred me from submitting my work in the past. Just thinking about it overwhelms me. There are hundreds of literary journals out there, each with their own niches, their own styles and caliber of contributors. First, what literary journals accept work from new, previously unpublished writers? How is a writer to know which journals are reputable in the literary world?

I have a short story that I have written, rewritten, had critiqued, edited and revised, had critiqued again and revised some more. I think I am finally ready to begin submitting it.

So begins the process of determining which magazines to submit my work to. Every published writer I have asked about this subject says the best way to determine where to send your work is by reading literary journals and finding one that fits for your story.

But where to start? To subscribe to a journal for a whole year feels like such a commitment – what, if after reading the first issue, I realize it is not the right fit for my work? To subscribe to multiple literary journals can add up to be a rather hefty investment, particularly for a “starving artist.”

That’s why I was so excited (and relieved) to find Journal of the Month, a subscription to receive a different lit journal every month.

Lit journals

I’ve received two journals so far – aren’t they beautiful?! I was pleasantly surprised that both were between 150 and 200 pages which I was not expecting. To make this deal even better, my friend and I split the cost and are sharing the journals as they arrive.

What a great way to get exposed to a variety of journals! How did I not know about this?!There are 32 participating journals, including The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, Salamander, Indiana Review and The Pinch.

I know you’re wondering, where do I sign up?! Here is the website for Journal of the Month Simply select your subscription length(from 4 journals to 24 journals) and your preferred frequency of delivery: monthly, every other month, or quarterly.

Subscribe, share with a friend, or send to a loved one  and insist that they get this for you for your next birthday, anniversary, or… just because!

I love hearing from you! What do you think of Journal of the Month?