Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Tips for Taking Your Writing to the Next Level

by Tracy Million Simmons

My local writing group has so many members now it is sometimes a bit difficult to find a seat at the table! I think part of our success is that the group is filled with people who have "can do" attitudes. It's contagious! I've long been a believer in the sentiment that we all rise and fall on the same wave. I think part of the success of our local group is that we are constantly looking for ways to support each other and challenge each other in our creative pursuits. The following "tip list" is largely inspired by what has taken place in my local writing group. 

¨    Attend workshops and readings whenever possible. Online courses can be awesome, but nothing beats meeting other writers face to face. (Watch the Kansas Authors Club calendar or check on the offerings at your nearest university or community college, local library, or independent bookstore.)

¨    Invite another writer (or 2 or 3) to meet you at the coffee shop for writing talk and “write-ins” where you sit together but work on individual projects for a set period of time.

¨    Build yourself a better writing community—your friends and family may or may not understand why you want to write. Spending time with writing friends will help keep you focused. Other writers will provide great advice and feedback to get you over hurdles as you meet them. If the types of opportunities you are looking for don’t exist in your area, create them!

¨    Publishing your work can be fun at any stage of the game, but starting with a focus on fun takes the pressure off. Print a chapbook of your favorite pieces for sharing with friends. Individualized chapbooks make great birthday gifts, holiday cards, or simply something fun and unique to share with those you love.

¨    Find another writer to share critiques and exchanges of proofreading/editing. Look for someone whose work you admire.

¨    Tip for those new to critiquing: Be specific about what kind of feedback you are looking for! It’s okay to start slowly! And it’s okay to start with the positives as you get to know and trust each other!

¨    Organize readings for your writing group so that members can practice performing their work in front of others. Reading work out loud not only helps to improve it, the immediate feedback from a supportive audience helps you gain confidence. Once you’ve had some practice, organize a reading for the public!

¨    Enter contests, submit for publication, write and share, write and share, write and share.

¨    Oh, and read, read, read! A writer always reads.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Found: Note from Mom

I wanted to make veggie and wild rice soup with the duck that was left from our anniversary dinner. I pulled out mom's old food chopper (because I probably didn't do the best job cooking the duck -- it was a bit tough and I was trying to think of an easy way to chop it up small) and was telling my son about how my mom used this handy kitchen tool all the time. I used think it was just her way of processing leftovers. We often had a "sandwich spread" of some kind after a roast, a chicken, a turkey, etc., but today I wondered if maybe she used it often because it was a good way to soften up those tough old birds (either as a result of poor cooking or the fact that they were literally old birds that had gone from egg producers to food on the table stage of life). Anyway, Kaman expressed surprise that the chopper belonged to my mom, and then as I was cleaning and putting it away, I found this in the bottom of the box. 

Mom was always labeling and dating every gift she ever got. I used to think it was a strange practice when I was a kid, but one I grew to appreciate. Today, it was as if she joined our conversation. Not only was it my mom's meat chopper, she got it for Christmas in 1962 from my grandparents (dad's parents). I love that she tucked the gift card inside the box. Maybe I have seen it before, but it didn't strike me as familiar. Her handwriting though, that I knew. And that 56 year old meat chopper still works like a charm!

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Often I visit my childhood home

Age 7 - with my pig Molly

in my dreams. I lived there for the first 18 years of my life; have lived elsewhere for 30 years more. Yet in dreams I find myself climbing the stairs of the old farmhouse, looking out my bedroom window toward the barn (which remains standing when I sleep, even when my consciousness intrudes, reminding me of the fire), or exploring the secret attic passageways which are always bigger and more elaborate than they were in real life (also stuffed with treasure I always dreamed of finding).

Last night I was there with my son. He was still a small boy, and I was younger too. We were pulling long, thin boards from the biggest attic and talking about all the things he might build with them. I kept thinking the scene felt familiar. I told him about building a helicopter when the room was being remodeled for my brother. In real, waking life, the construction must have taken place when I was three or four. I did build a helicopter in that room. I nailed two boards together to form a letter X. I attached them to a larger board and added a small piece crosswise for the tail. I could spin the propeller with my hand and felt tremendous satisfaction with my creation.

I also visited a memory of jumping, years later, from a stack of bricks built with my cousins. We were flying then too. I don’t remember if we had propellers or wings (perhaps we were testing both) but the important part was the moment between jumping and landing, the brief span of time where I believed that anything--even flight--was possible.

As I woke, I told myself to hold on to the lesson, to remember that I built a helicopter when I was only four, and to hang on to even the littlest moments, those times when anything feels possible.

Monday, October 15, 2018

2018 Kansas Authors Club Convention

It's starting to feel like a belated recap of the festivities. Has it only been one week?

On October 5-6-7, I had the pleasure of meeting up with my writing family in Salina for the Kansas Authors Club annual convention and writers conference. I ran the book room this year (shout out to Ray "Grizzly" Racobs, my helper!), and so it was a different view that I often get, but I had a fabulous time, none-the-less.

Cover (front & back) of the 2018 Youth Writing Contest
Awards Book - Cover Photo by Evie Simmons
Ninety-eight kids from across the state of Kansas completed 200 entries in the annual Youth Writing Contest (categories in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction). It has been a pleasure to work with our youth contest manager each year (shout out to Sheree Downs, 2018!) and to compile the book of winning entries. I love watching the kids get copies of these books. For this highlight alone, I would return to Kansas Authors Club conventions again and again. Thanks goes to many who have encouraged and contributed to the growth of this program.

Instead of attending workshops this year, I visited with authors one-on-one in the book room. The creative energy seemed to flow beyond the walls of the conference rooms. I enjoyed reports from attendees, as well as conversations about works-in-progress and books read. I don't know how the numbers compare to previous years, but we had 35 authors in attendance with more than 100 titles for sale. And it was extremely satisfying to watch shoppers select their books. ("Here! This is it! That book by the woman we were talking to.")

Convention Attendees from Emporia: Jolene Haas, Curtis Becker, Monica
Graves, Michael Graves, Kevin Rabas, Cheryl Unruh, Tracy Million
Simmons, Hazel Hart, and Wendy Devilbiss - 2018 Salina
Possibly one of the best things about the convention this year was the number of attendees from my local area. Emporia Writers group continues to grow each year and we had representation enough to fill a table at the convention this year. This is only a fraction of our regular attendees locally, but it certainly feels good to be part of a vibrant and growing group of productive writers.

It didn't hurt that Kevin Rabas, Emporia's professor poet in residence (aka Kansas Poet Laureate) was the keynote speaker at the convention. Kevin has such skill at bringing his enthusiasm and creative drive to the workshops. He has a way of emboldening and empowering writers. I heard long-time Kansas Authors Club member, William Karnowski (poet, current state archivist, former state vice president, former district president) saying, "Kevin really gets it. He knows how to connect with people. It's not just academic," as he was leaving Kevin's workshop.

Kevin Rabas was presented with
the Merit Award for Achievement
in Writing at the 2018 Kansas
Authors Club Convention
Wendy Devilbiss (here with Diane
Wahto, state awards chair) was
presented with the Merit Award
Service to the Club, as was
Reaona Hemmingway (who was
unable to attend).
A highlight of the convention each year is the book awards, and the total given this year was five. Award winners were as follows:

J. Donald & Bertha Coffin Memorial Book Award, Flight, a novel of Beirut and the French Countryside, by Jean Grant

Nelson Poetry Book Award, Acacia Road, by Aaron Brown

Martin Kansas History Book Award (year one under the Martin name, in memory of Gail Martin, former archivist for the Club), A Cow for College and Other Stories of 1950s Farm Life, by James Kenyon

"It Looks Like a Million" Book Design Award, The Modern Bachateros: 27 Interviews, by Julie Sellers

Kansas Authors Club Children's Book Award (new in 2018, sponsored by state president, Ronda Miller), Bird, by Glendyn Buckley (Illustrated by Barbara Waterman-Peters)

Literary Contest Winners in the Memoir/Inspiration Category:
Julie Sellers (Honorable Mention), Jack Kline (Honorable
Mention), Micheal D. Graves (2nd Place), Tracy Million
Simmons (1st Place).
After a great weekend of workshops and inspiration, the convention was capped, as usual, with the adult literary contest awards in prose and poetry. I had five entries this year and was thrilled to take home awards in two!

I plan to share more about the award in Spoken Word Poetry soon!


Kansas Authors Club membership is open to anyone who has an interest in writing. Meetings are held in several locations across the state. Learn more about Kansas Authors Club at

Sunday, April 29, 2018

For the Love of Cousins

This weekend, one of my cousins said, "It's really too bad that it takes a funeral to get us to get together.

I agreed, but had to point out that at least we make the time for funerals. Sometimes it is hard to make time... except when you are being reminded that time isn't a guaranteed luxury. In memory of a cousin by marriage -- my Aunt Bonnie's son, Richard Powell -- I spent the weekend with some of my extended family. Cousins arrived from Alabama, Colorado, Texas, Indiana, and Kansas, of course. I had a rather short commute compared to most of them.

For about thirty-six hours, it was like diving headlong into the best best parts of childhood. I just circled and listened, circled and talked. Catching up on kids and partners, lives and jobs. Reminiscing and listening to others reminisce. Remembering those gone by interacting with those still with us.

I feel as if I owe a debt of thanks to Richard for the gift of time well-spent with family. I definitely owe a debt of thanks to Richard's wife, Deb, who opened her home and her heart to so many.

We're already planning an intentional reunion for next summer. Yay!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Reading with Emporia Writers

The local writing group had a reading this week as part of the celebration of The Literary World of William Allen White, hosted by ESU's WAW Memorial Library and Archives.

One of the benefits of getting together regularly with a group of writers is to remind yourself, though you often write alone, you are not alone. Other writers make good cheerleaders. They tend to offer good advice when you are in a writing hard place, or simply cheer you along, unafraid (and sincerely interested) to hear how your current project(s) is coming along.

Sometimes, having writer friends helps you step outside your box. While I've come to enjoy public presentations much more in recent years than I did when I was young, my tendency is often still to avoid them. Yet, when our group got this invitation to participate in this event, I jumped on it. It was fun to round up our writing meeting regulars and focus on a project together. We ended up with a few who were new to sharing their work and a some who were seasoned regulars. I think everyone had a good time, and though the event was small, we pretty much filled all the seats!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Reaching out , though it may disrupt our comfort...

Mostly written 2/15/2018

I lost a friend to suicide last year. Not a day has gone by since that I haven't thought about her, thought about our relationship, thought about all that I did and did not do. Though I called her friend, the truth was she could be a difficult person to be around. I struggled between the feeling that she needed me and feeling like I needed to protect myself/distance myself from her. In the end, I'm sad to say, distancing myself won out. In my mind, I told myself that I remained there for her, that I would not turn her away if she needed me, but I stopped reaching out. It was a hard thing to do. I am a person who naturally reaches out. I am a person who delights at getting together to visit with others, old friends and new. I'm not your go-to person for daily phone calls or lots of face time (generally), but I do value my friendships and I love getting to know my fellow humans, story by story.

I stopped reaching out to my friend, and though it took a bit of time, she stopped reaching out to me, as well. Our coffee dates dwindled to none. Our email exchanges grew less frequent and finally stopped altogether. The night before she killed herself, we were commenting on the same post on Facebook and I almost send her a private message. I knew life had been difficult for her. I knew some of her past issues were even more and bigger issues in that moment, yet I stopped myself. I chose to maintain the distance between us, perhaps thinking I just didn't have the time to welcome her back into my life right at that moment. I honestly can't be sure of exactly what I was thinking. Time has a way of of distorting the reality as we grieve. I only know that I did not reach out. And now I will never have that chance again.

These words come out today (heaven knows, I have started and stopped writing so many stories about my friend in the last six months) as I think about a young man who took a gun into a school in Florida yesterday and turned his pain, not against himself as my friend did, but against so many others. And as I am wired, as a person who spends time collecting people, story by story, I find myself thinking about how difficult he must have been. He likely had friends, at least once upon a time. People who cared about him deeply. And I wonder how many people from his life are sitting there today, wondering if there was something they could have done that would have changed things.

There are so many conversations that need to be had here...

But I keep coming back to another moment, just before I entered the fifth grade. I was on a family road trip that summer, reading Blubber, by Judy Blume, from the back of the station wagon. I was so moved by that story that I wrote a letter to a girl I went to school with. You know the girl. I'm sure you went to school with her too. Maybe she dressed funny. Her clothes weren't always clean, or her hair was a little greasy, like she was always a day past needing a shampoo. Or maybe it was something less obvious, like she had red hair, or she laughed a little too loudly, or her allergies meant she was constantly carrying a tissue. I think most of us have had experiences with this person. I think most of us have BEEN that girl/that boy for at least one moment in our lives.

For whatever reason, real or make believe, sometimes we encounter people who are difficult to reach out to, either something about them physically or something that stretches us mentally and emotionally. We pull away. We put distance between us when maybe what would truly be helpful--what would make a difference--would be to reach out.

In my grade school experience, the explanation (on the part of those of us who were not friends with the girl) was simple childhood immaturity. Some of us were trying on bullying behavior. Some of us may have actually been bullies. I don't know. Some of us were just desperately trying to fit in and would do anything, even if it meant shoving someone else out. Some of us had true issues to be angry about and did not yet understand that things were not improved by targeting an innocent victim.

That girl that I got to know was quick with a smile and incredibly bright. She didn't even hold a grudge, as far as I could tell. She and I became friends, at least through our junior high school years. I saw less of her in high school, and as adults we've seen each other a few times and have had our quick catch-ups and conversations as people who knew each other once-upon-a-time do. I don't know much about her life, but I spent enough time with her to learn some of the difficulties of her childhood, and to know that her smile grew even bigger as we left our grade school years behind.

I'm not excusing the horrible behavior of children or claiming that I made a significant difference in one girl's life. I'm simply remembering a moment that was hard, a decision I made that may have made my own life a little uncomfortable at that moment, but now that I am looking back I have no regrets about it. I reached out when I was ten, and it was totally worth it.

Yet as an adult, I didn't reach out... and I have been sorry every day for six months.

Since my friend took her own life last year, I've developed kind of a running dialogue with myself. Not that I had a clue just how bad it was for her. Even when our friendship was the real deal, even when I knew more about the ups and downs of her life, it honestly had never occurred to me that suicide might be one of her options. Call me naive. It feels arrogant to think that my presence would have made any difference at all to her, but it certainly would not have hurt me to reach out to her, to show some kindness.

I hear my inner voice quite loudly these days, saying things like, "Stop. Take a moment. Just say hello. Listen for a few minutes. Reach out. Give a little."

I don't know how to save the world, but I know how good it feels when people notice, when someone takes the time to say hello, and ask how my day is going. And there is no reason to avoid being that person who notices, who takes the time, who asks...

It's so easy to build a bubble and exist only on the inside. I think it is almost dangerously easy to do so even more these days, with communications like those on Facebook taking place of real life interactions.

The night before my friend took her own life, I almost sent her a private message. Instead, I pulled back. I was more comfortable with the distance between us. I told myself that she looked like she was doing well. Judging by the things she was sharing on FB (and we all understand how truth is reflected through FB) I thought she might even be finding some happiness. I reasoned with myself that my presence might actually disrupt her current life, that my reaching out might just bring up old hurts and make everything harder for her again.

I'm not a fragile person. I've long recognized that I have a stamina of optimism that has always carried me through the hard times. Sometimes, in fact, it has taken me years of distance to see how truly low some of the most difficult parts of my life have taken me. At the same time, my empathy for others who are struggling, especially while they are struggling, has too often sent me running the other way. When my mom died, I promised myself I would never walk away from friendship because of cancer. When a friend got divorced, I promised myself I would not walk away just because I could sometimes recognize her struggles in those my own marriage had seen. When my friend took her own life, it became very clear to me that I had walked away for the excuse of maintaining my own comfort, my own happiness.

And what does this have to do with dead children in Florida? I am reading the gun debates and the mental health debates and... while I think there is merit (on both sides) in so many of these arguments, I wonder if the answer isn't a bit simpler, a bit more personal.

Maybe we make a difference when we stop putting ourselves first. Just reach out when you see someone in pain. Endure a moment of personal discomfort and ask the next person you see about their own discomfort. Maybe replace every ranting FB post you write with a genuine conversation with the next person you meet on the street.

I don't know where to end this rambling post.

I don't know when I will stop feeling guilty about the friend I didn't reach out to.

And I know, know, know it wasn't my fault. It wasn't my responsibility to fix things for her. I don't need to be comforted about this fact.

I just need to decide that I will stop focusing so hard on my own comfort... I need to recognize my strengths and utilize them. I need to think more about the influence I might have on someone else's bubble, rather than fear a disruptive presence in my own.

Blog Archive