Letters on Writing

Letters on Writing

“Ephemera_IMG_7599” by martin_kalfatovic is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Letters on Writing

By Jane Tawel

March 4, 2020

I work with a young writer who, like all young real writers, angsts over everything. I have only known her a short time and I adore her. Maybe because I am an old angst-er myself. She is, I am sorry to report, typical of the average American student today, in that she gets excellent grades and learns little. She, as so many, tragically learn precious little except what will take them any further than the next A- or the next school year and eventually the next job.


My dear student has been taught to write with great form and no substance. Or rather, she has been conditioned to ignore the substance she wants to write about, and to shove her writer’s dainty Cinderella feet into the huge ugly shoes of the Stepsisters of five-line paragraphs and “active prose”. So, I cheer her on with counterarguments to the propaganda that many poor unwitting, hardworking teachers of writing have been led to believe themselves. And I help her swim against the current of her own “shoulds”, until she can find the right way to swim with the currents of her ideas and imagination.


When writing, at any age or for any genre, one should not reach for the buoys and lifeboats of form until one has found one’s own strokes of function. Maybe a good writer has to even be a little afraid she will drown, but at least if she jumps into the deep end of writing, and she keeps moving, she will learn how to swim before learning how to tread in place or before she ends up standing and watching other people write from the shores of her couch or desk chair.


Now, I know, I know — what is going through my audience’s mind right now is, “Those who can’t — teach”. Well, I am very, very proud to have been a teacher and to still teach, especially writing. I think the fact that I am not a famous writer or even a particularly good writer, might encourage my audience to take what I will say more seriously,rather than less, because writing is for us, not for them. I have grown quite fond of my little “community” of writers here in the world of “Listen to Me, Please” Platforms.


I often will “like” or “follow” a young writer in my own writing platforms merely because I want them to know they are worth listening to. I like young people who want to write. I like all people who want to write. I think the loss of the idea that humans should daily be writing down their thoughts is one of the greatest losses of the species we call “humanity”. I think everyone should write out their life stories for prosperity and everyone should write down for their personal benefits their thoughts on everything from “What I Did Today” to “My Bucket List” to War and Peace.


I thought I would periodically share some of my recent back and forths with students, as we together explore ideas on writing. I like these letters through which I have listened and then tried to teach something, particularly because they have their genesis in my student writing a letter to me (via email of course), and my responding in writing. So, to learn about writing, we are expressing ourselves through writing.


These are thoughts that I have been eking out, teasing forth, and involve a sort of question / answer or a sort of Socratic teacher /pupil format. But what I love about teaching and about addressing specific student’s questions is that I am always learning myself. Plus I realize that the art of writing is so vast, so eternally creative, that the hows and whys and methods into finding the golden eggs, mining the nuggets, revealing the truth and addressing the crux, are an ever fluid, flowing fountain of possibilities and achievabilities. Addressing the way to write is both maze and Russian doll. One never reaches the end if one begins without knowing where it will lead, and that is where the joy of discovery — the joy of discovering what you will write — lies.


The letters between my student and me will, in no way, give you hints on how to be successful and make money as a writer. They may however, I hope, free your inner muse and make you, if not exactly happier, (because writing means hurting sometimes) perhaps fuller and more at peace with why you write. I hope they can do the same for me, because we writers know that what we say, always comes with the caveat: “Physician, heal thyself”.


A Letter Between Mrs. T and Cara

(I have changed my student’s name to protect the innocent.)

Letter One: February 28, 2020


Hi Ms. Tawel,

So, I was going through old documents in my laptop and came across a few unfinished stories that I thought would be fun to finish now. But then I realized why I abandoned them.

Too many subplots.

At least I think that’s what they would be called. They’re just random ideas I had for individual characters, the storyline, and backstories.

Anyway, the reason why I’m bringing this up is because I don’t want to get rid of them. They’re all (in my opinion) great ideas that’d make up a good story, but when I look at everything put together it’s all really crowded to the point where somethings seem out of place and very random.

But I really want to keep these ideas in! They seem fun to write about and would bring out a part of my story that’s somewhat unique.

I know we’ve already touched on this issue, but I think I need to hear it again.

…Darn, this’ll probably end in me having to get rid of most of the subplots. 😦

OH! And also…

I have an issue with backstories. Now, I LOVE good backstories, especially sad ones. But I tend to give it a lil’ too much love and end up making them quite complex. Do you think complex backstories are bad? I guess I could always start my story earlier and make the backstory shorter, but then… I’d just rather start my story when I originally planned to.

So, in short, are complex backstories okay? If not, how can I make them okay? How can I make it so that the beginning isn’t so hectic? Is a hectic beginning okay? Gah! I have so many questions, but I have to eat dinner so this is it for now.

Thank you for your time.





Hi Cara:

So here is what I think — although please don’t think I mean to make this sound easy, okay?

I think you need to give yourself permission to get rid of your inner critic in the initial stages of writing. For a true writer, there can not be “shoulds”. If all the world’s great writers had started with “shoulds”, we would never have a Fitzgerald or Dickens or Dickinson or Steinbeck or even Rowling. Even just regular writers, those who find creative joy in writing or those who are just beginning to find their voice and muse as you are or just so-so writers like I am, even we need to release ourselves from beginning with the ideas of some one else’s “should”. Think of that old adage from “Field of Dreams” — “If you write it, they will come”. You can not determine either your purpose or audience before you let yourself write what is inside you and in your heart / mind. Because separating the heart from the mind, is death to good writing and this is what happens when form comes before function.


As you know, I personally believe, you should never, ever, ever get rid of anything you have created. Yes, sometimes you have to lop off a limb from the tree of your writing to give it the best shape possible — like a bonsai tree, sometimes smaller is better and that means pruning. However, you don’t annihilate anything EVER!. You store it away for another day, cut and paste it into a stored document somewhere, just like keeping a tree limb in the wood pile to use someday in a construction of a different sort, or a fireplace that will keep everyone warm.


If you have to save an idea, a subplot, a metaphor or description “on a shelf” for a while, do it. But don’t do that until the FINAL stages which is when you edit — but editing is last, last, last — AFTER you have discovered by writing freely with love and joy and of course sometimes pain and sorrow — AFTER the purpose, style, and meaning are revealed to you. This is the old idea of listening to a “muse”. And a muse is not your teacher or your marketing shares. When a teacher or sales are made our audiences, we create characters without souls, and writing without nurturing love. Writing for school assignments today is like being taught how to have babies in test tubes.


It is good to have critical reasoning, and you are right to know that in the final stages you will need to shape and mold your stories and essays in ways that may hurt a bit, but to do that now means you are, frankly, finding an “excuse” not to stay vulnerable to your voice, ideas and “muse”. You must be vulnerable to your writing, just like you must stay vulnerable in any relationship that you want to survive the tests of times and trial.


Thank you for trusting me to “give you permission” to go with what your heart, head and gut tell you. Don’t be afraid of what the future tough minded, surgical “editor” — which will always in the end be yourself — may do. A surgeon is often necessary but not right now. Right now you are a parent, a grower, a writer. Write.


Mrs. T

A Little Dab’ll Do Ya’

photo 5-11.JPG

A Little Dab’ll Do Ya’

By Jane Tawel

May 14, 2017

A good while back there was this hair gel –before “Bedhead”, before girls started gelling their hair, before pomades and shaping creams cost as much as small television sets—  This hair product was called “Brylcreem” and only men used it and it made them smell like MEN – just like Aqua Velva or Old Spice did. The jingle for this gel, originating in England but oozing worldwide, was “A Little Dab’ll Do Ya’.  I love the following history as related in Wikepedia:


Brylcreem was first advertised on television with the jingle “Brylcreem—A Little Dab’ll Do Ya! Brylcreem—You’ll look so debonair. Brylcreem—The gals’ll all pursue ya; they’ll love to run their fingers through your hair!”[1]

The Brylcreem TV advertisement included a cartoon animation of a man with initially tousled hair who happily has a little dab applied, and, miraculously, the hair combs and smooths itself.

When the dry look became popular, partly inspired by the unoiled moptops of the Beatles, the last line was changed from “They’ll love to run their fingers through your hair”, to “They’ll love the natural look it gives your hair.”

Subsequent television advertisements used the mottoes “Grooms without gumming” and later, in the 1970s in the UK and Canada, “A little dab of Brylcreem on your hair gives you the Brylcreem bounce”. (Wikipedia May 8, 2017)



This has been a wonderful year as I have been privileged to teach Junior High. For many teachers and parents, the words “wonderful”, “privileged”  and “Junior High” are counter intuitive oxymorons,  but I really enjoy the innocence and open inquiry these young folks still have.  Also – unlike older students (or adults) they know they are squirrely and they own it.  They are  much fun.


The move you see us all doing in the picture is one that we always called “The Noah Move”. One of my students, Noah, always ended a report or a particularly good comment of his with this move. However, unbeknownst to us, this move is known outside my little cocooned class room in Pasadena, CA not as “The Noah Move” but as “The Dab”.  I did not know the real name until one night about a month ago when I was out to eat with my kids and husband.  I was talking about something or other that I guess I was kind of proud of and I did “The Noah Move”. My family looked at me oddly but they often do, whether I am moving or sitting perfectly still, so no biggie.  Our waiter walking by us, though, stopped dead in his tracks and turning to me smilingly said with a great degree of mock shock in his voice, “Did you just DAB?!”  We all laughed in that way you do with strangers whom you are dependent on for your next meal but who have just said something that you have no earthly idea of what they are talking about. “Hee, hee, hee, hee, if I did do whatever you just said I did – Dab was it?—will you still bring me my sushi?”


I had no idea what he was talking about nor did I think too much more about it.  Fast forward a few weeks to the night of Speech Night and a parent who teaches at a public school took this picture for my students and me.  Later he and I were talking and  he rather sweetly but seriously informed me that though “The Dab” is now considered a sanitized dance move, it originated as an indicator that someone had just taken a heightened drug version of marijuana and was coughing into one’s elbow to indicate the high was good to go. (Something like that.  I wasn’t totally clear on the parent’s explanation since I, as this man’s daughter’s teacher was sort of shutting down a bit as my face reddened and pulse quickened and I tried to keep laughing the “hee, hee” laugh to cover my embarrassment and the possibility that he would be upset at me for teaching his daughter to “DAB”.)


So time changes things. A Little Dab’ll Do Ya – once the innocent jingle of a company trying to convince you that using a glue would make your hair feel softer, is now the not so innocent jingle trying to convince you that using a drug (like glue) can make you feel better about yourself.  In hindsight, both products are trying to sell us the same thing – that we are not okay as we are without some product or other.


Maybe you remember when you were in Junior High? Do you know how  almost impossible it is for a 12 or 13 year old  in Junior High School to believe that they are okay? Not great, not amazing, just okay.  In fact, it is daily almost impossible for a young person to come anywhere near believing they are more than okay, –inside and outside. It is almost impossible for a 13- year- old to believe they are beloved by God. This is why our class motto for good and bad times has been, as  the Psalmist says, “we are fearfully and wonderfully made” in the image of a God.


Getting back amongst Junior Highers this past year has helped me realize that at my age, I too am struggling with feeling that I am not okay – inside and  outside.  Maybe that is why I enjoy teaching Junior Highers.  They are a lot like 50- year- old women.  Both of us have to deal with bodies changing without our consent or control, emotions plunging, plummeting and peaking on a minute by minute basis, and the stares of strangers at whatever is happening on our facial skin despite the use of many expensive products. Let me tell you, a little dab may do ya when you are 13 but when you are my age, a dab don’t do nothing!


So the day after Speech Night, and after the kind parent and fellow teacher had pulled me aside and informed me about the origin of the Dab Dance Move, the kids and I had a  little class discussion. I wanted the young people to know at least how this “Noah Move” would be interpreted by some people outside the cocoon of our classroom. And then we needed to discuss the future of our using this move.  Should we keep dabbing now that we know what it signifies?  Mrs. Tawel talked seriously about not trusting people without any regard to safety – safety not just for one’s outside but for one’s inside as well.  I said that now that we know what “Dab” means to some people, if any one offers us a dab we will know to say, “no thank you”. We talked about trusting our parents and good adults and keeping them in the “truth talking loop”, and how important it is to keep learning and growing and gaining confidence in one’s self.


And then with the wisdom and innocence of youth and old age, we decided that we as group who had been through a year of Junior High together,  thought of the move as “The Noah Move” and we liked it and we were going to claim it as our own and keep doing it together.  For Mrs. Tawel’s 7th Grade Class, The Dab is a fun move that speaks to our sense of pride in accomplishment,  solidarity  with a group of very different individuals, and joy in being alive.  It is a move that to us means, “We just did something great and we are proud of it. Hurrah!” We decided that we liked “The Noah Dab”.  It was us. It was our way of saying to each other, “hey, we are a-okay”. And sometimes, we are Wonderful.



Unlike the original Dab Drug Dance Move or even the Brylcreem Dab, “The Noah Dab Move”, requires no product, no money spent, no fixing something that isn’t broken, no changing or altering of any kind. Its only requirement is that you are willing to say, I am not just okay, but I am fearfully and wonderfully made.


I highly recommend that you give it a try.  As you can tell by this picture, I am not perhaps the best person to teach any one a dance move, but if you can’t find any one else, I will be happy to Noah Dab with you.


The next time you are feeling like you are back in Junior High, and your locker won’t open and you are late for class and you have a pimple that is the size of Mt. Everest and you fell and scrapped your knee and got blood all over your new knee socks and every one was laughing at you and you got a C- in Earth Science, and the boy you like ignored you this morning and your best friend went to Disney Land with the new girl who didn’t invite you and your stomach hurt this morning and adults don’t understand you –  Oh, Sorry – I didn’t mean to go on and on about my life right now. Maybe all those things only happen to me?


But the next time you just can’t find the right product to fix your heart – remember Mrs. Tawel’s 7th Graders and try a dance move that is all your own – for you are uniquely and wonderfully made in the image of a dancing, dabbing God.

I can guarantee if you do try it, that “A Little Dab’ll Do Ya”.



How To Celebrate Sorrow

How to Celebrate Sorrow

By Jane Tawel

February 26, 2017


Wednesday, March 1 will be one of my favorite days in the year.  It is Ash Wednesday, a day  where some of us who believe in Jehovah, the God of Israel, the God of The Christ,  begin forty days of penitence. The Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah. (Note to self: The Muslims also celebrate these same days of repentance.) At the end of these various religious days of repentance, there is a big celebration:  we call it, Easter or Resurrection Sunday.  The Jews call it Yom Kippur.

So I am meditating on the fact that I seem to have been born into a time and place where the idea of penitence, remorse, regret, sinfulness, unholiness — all of it — is “not a thing”, as  the kids say. Perhaps born out of time and place, I am trying to make it “a thing” — a daily “thing” in my own life. I walk and pray and try to accept a daily sense of my need to be cleansed from “stuff” inside and outside, in my mind and in my heart.  The bible I read, calls it a sense of my own unrighteousness and need. And being redeemed has to do not only with eternal salvation but with relationship to a specific and real God and relationship to specific and real others — my neighbors which Jesus says include my enemies, as well as my family members, biologically family or Christ-0logically family.

The first time I experienced someone who celebrated Ash Wednesday was when I was a freshman at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.  My beloved theater professor, Jim Young, came to class with a large black smudge on his forehead and I, being ignorant of the meaning, kept trying to rub it off for him.  He recoiled in horror from my little anxious helping hand.  Jim is no longer wearing ashes; he is now on the other side of Resurrection Sunday forever.

I often think of that metaphoric moment and how it reveals continual issues in my own life.  I have grown up in a culture that does not want to look at negative things too closely and does not want to live in grief much at all. We want to move straight on to the celebration.  We want to helpfully and quickly remove the “smudges” from our own lives and the lives of others. We want to “bury the past” and “bury the body” and be happy again.  We move past the moments of sorrowful deaths, both the literal ones and figurative ones, as quickly as possible.  There is not enough time to grieve or mourn, there is too much to do and accomplish, and staying busy and active helps us “get past” the problems and sadnesses in our souls.  And what good does it do any one anyway?

The only problem is, all of that reasoning just isn’t true. We know it isn’t true somewhere deep inside. And when we keep living by denying the smudges and moving on to the resurrection of our own happiness, we end up with ever larger and larger holes in our souls and confusion about why we aren’t all that happy. We merely bury the live body of ourselves along with the dead bodies of the other person, other relationship, other job, other life.  We move our bodies along, but our souls begin to rot from within, merely masked in the myrrh of merriment. We refuse to go through the needed completeness of penitence and grief, a daily need, as Jesus told Nicodemus, to go through the painful channel of suffering and be reborn into new life. We want Jesus to have suffered for us on the cross so we can wash our hands and souls of a need to suffer with Him on behalf of our own broken lives and the lives of others.  We want to avoid going through the Red Sea and wilderness and arrive in the promised land with all our “stuff”, saved and cleansed by someone else’s journey, while we sit and watch, grumble and criticize, and devour the panacea of false hopes and happinesses. We want the fruit from that tree not the one we were provided — partying continually, eating, drinking and being merry, and never finding the joy that comes with the hard work of penitence and deprivation, fasting from self-love in order to find the love beyond measure in our Heavenly Father and the selflessness of a reborn soul.

In the bible, numbers matter and forty and ten, the days of Lent and of Rosh Hashanah respectively are days of completeness.  At the end, of both of these times, I don’t end up with a better me, like I might after a diet, but I end up with a better sense of who I am in the vastness of eternity and worlds without end.  I end up not less penitent, but more humble and thankful to be alive, more thankful to a God who loves enough to suffer and grieve. I end up closer to shalom, or true soul-wholeness, and with a better relationship with a real God, and a better relationship to the reality of this world and my neighbor. I end up with an inkling of what completeness might really mean. And that is how sorrow leads to celebration.

This Lent, I am sharing with folks that I will be “fasting” from Facebook.  The reason I am fasting from it, is because I keep anxiously and falsely thinking that I can be “helpful” — I am wired to be busy, busy, busy as a teacher, a parent, a friend.  I have been reading a book by Parker Palmer and this week’s reading was about the days of “Lent” for Jesus — The Forty Days in the Wilderness– days when Jesus met head- on complete fasting and complete temptation. The One Who Was Sinless came out from those days of deprivation and temptation with a better relationship with a real God and a better relationship to the reality of this world and His neighbors, including His enemies.  Jesus came out of those forty days with more grief and more joy and began the business of saving the world. And in The Christ’s ministry of sorrow and suffering, we all get a better chance at celebrating.

One great thing about writing a blog, is you get to connect with other writers.  I have realized that anything I have to write, has been written better by some one else, but I also realized that I simply am one of those people who must write to think and process.  I encourage any of you readers who want to take a journey into a less unfulfilling -self-centered life and a more fulfilling, other-centered life of “being”– a life where a true lenten season and a daily sense of grief and repentance and a conviction of one’s own need and want is a path to a true sense of completeness or shalom– where a time of repentance and taking up Christ’s cross leads to true joy– I highly recommend you read some of the great writers on these topics. There are many. If you haven’t read the bible for yourself, check it out along with those who can illuminate it for you. Recently,  Parker Palmer and Henri Nouwen have provided a huge paradigm shift for me. I encourage you to read them.  Here is the passage from Palmer that has given me an idea of how to fast and celebrate Lent this year.  I look forward to celebrating with you on Facebook on the other side of the next forty days. God willing.  Here’s to ashes!

From The Active Life  by Parker Palmer:    on fasting,  temptation, and the need to prove ourselves:


In the first temptation Jesus faces, the devil says, “If you are the Chosen One, tell this stone to turn into a loaf.”  But Jesus refused him…. But these word of Jesus, his refusal to turn stone into bread, are his response to the devil, not to starving people. Once Jesus moves through these temptations and embarks on his public ministry, he works a number of miracles, including the provision of bread for people who are hungry. What Jesus says and does is related to context, and when the circumstances are right he has no inhibitions about using his powers to meet authentic needs.  We need only to understand why the circumstances in this story were wrong.


The devil prefaces his challenge to turn stone into bread with a taunt that takes a very familiar form:  “If you are the Chosen One…Though few of us get needled for thinking we are Chosen, the tone of that taunt should remind us of outward or inward voices in our lives: “If you are so able… “If you are a real woman or man…” If you truly care…” If you are such a good parent…” The root temptation here is almost irresistible.  It is not the temptation to do a magic trick, which most of us know we cannot.  It is the temptation to prove our identity, which many of us feel we must…


Had Jesus made stone into bread simply to show the devil that he was the Chosen One, he would have been acting mechanically, caught in the cogs of cultural expectations, compelled by circumstances to act a role.  By refusing to do so, he both demonstrates and extends his transcendence over the context of his action….Jesus does not regard himself as accountable for his calling to any voice except God’s so in his refusal to “prove” anything to the devil he is actually proving that he is the Chosen One…


When you refuse to meet the terms of an external demand, refuse to produce publicly verifiable results, you do not prove anything in the normal sense of that word.  Instead, you leave yourself open to charges of elevation or cowardice, and you forfeit the external confirmation on which so many of us depend; you may become inwardly shaky about who you really are. …


In light of the fact that Jesus had been fasting in the desert for an extended period of time, “and at the end he was hungry,” the devil seems to speak with a voice of reason, perhaps even compassion, when he says, “… Tell this stone to turn into a loaf.”  Henri Nouwen calls this the temptation to be relevant, and with that word he names something that many of us face from time to time—the temptation to “solve” some problem on a level that does not solve it at all, and may even make things worse.


Jesus’ real problem in the desert is not hunger—though it might look that way to an outside observer—so his real solution is not bread…   when the time comes to end a fast, you do so gradually, and not devour a chunk of bread! When we rush to the aid of a fasting person, attempting to be “relevant” by insisting that he or she eat, we are likely not only to be irrelevant but to do harm as well.


True relevance requires a certain subtlety, which the very idea of relevance seems to exclude. What Jesus really needs in his desert fast is not food.  In fact he does not need anything external.  Like the woodcarver in the poem, who fasted not merely from food but from praise and criticism, gain and success, Jesus’ real need is for inward confirmation of his mission, a confirmation he is more likely to find in the emptiness of fasting than in the gratification of bodily needs…..


Actions that seem relevant may turn out to be irrelevant in the extreme. Parents know that they do not necessarily solve a child’s problem by giving in to the demand for a special toy. They must address the problem behind the problem, which may be the child’s capacity for delayed gratification or for simple self-reliance.  Teachers know that they do not necessarily solve a student’s problem by answering the questions the student asks.  The real question may be the student’s ability to find answers for himself or herself, so the teacher who withholds answers may enlarge the student’s capacity to learn.  The temptation to be relevant is often the temptation to deal with only the external illusion of a problem and ignore its internal truth. (Palmer, The Active Life, excerpts from pp. 106-108)