free the pen, a blog for writers

July 19, 2014

Journaling and Writing are Soul Mates

Filed under: writing techniques — freethepen @ 12:58 pm

Journaling and Writing are Soul Mates

by Mari L. McCarthy

I am a journal writing therapist. I believe passionately in the power of daily pen-to-the-page journaling to heal, grow, and become the person we were meant to be.  But the practice of journal writing provides more than therapy. One of the wonderful benefits of a regular journaling practice is improvement in your writing skill.  When you play a musical instrument, you practice playing scales. Journal writing is like playing scales for other kinds of writing. Like a beloved soul mate, journaling improves, encourages, and adores your “real-world” endeavors of all kinds.  Just playing with the tools, the words, the composition of thoughts and stories is the kind of practice journaling allows. You’re not required to be entertaining; you need not be an accomplished writer in your journal. All you want to do is express, tell the story, unload the heartache, voice the joy. There’s no objective, apart from completing your daily entry.

Journaling is you speaking to you, which is a nicely safe space. But it’s actually not speaking at all – it’s writing, and that involves words and paper and pen and that magical transformation that happens with any clear articulation. As soon as you can describe, tell, communicate any message or story, you free it to live and transcend and grow. So how exactly does this intimate everyday ritual of journaling relate to you as a writer of published works? Journaling is all very well, but those handwritten notebooks live comfortably on the shelf. Your published work, on the other hand, is out there for all the world to see. What’s the connection between them?

Well, there are many answers to that question. Here are just a few:

  1. Journaling is a writing habit you practice regularly, so it is naturally very likely to improve your ability to write with ease.
  2. Journaling that is pen-to-page involves neuromuscular development and coordination of body and mind. In our digital age, there’s little opportunity to exercise the hand’s creativity, but when we do practice working with the hands, we notice many benefits.
  3. Journaling is introspective and invites free expression, helping to loosen up your access to honest, raw emotions.
  4. Journaling shows us better who we are and this knowing makes our published work more honest.
  5. Journaling helps us find solutions to problems, and we can use the same process in our writing that is meant for an audience. Read over the stories you have told, the knots that have unraveled (or not!) in your journal, and mimic their progress in the writing you do for publication.

A musician does scales. A painter sketches constantly. An entrepreneur dabbles in initiatives; a politician talks and talks some more. Every passion has its practice soul mate.

  • Are you a beginning writer? Then journal to discover your unique voice and the stories that you feel compelled to tell.
  • Are you an intermediate writer? Then journal to deepen your effect.
  • Are you an advanced writer? Then journal to keep yourself honest!

A writer journals because the business of writing is writing; and journal writing is the most efficient and effective way to hone that skill every day!


Mari L. McCarthy is The Journaling Therapy Specialist, founder of Create Write Now (, the Transform Your Life Journaling Place. She offers counseling and encouragement to journal writers through her many online Journaling for the Self of It TM resources, as well as private consultations. Mari’s the community manager on the CreateWriteNow Facebook page and she often leads online journaling challenges. Mari lives in Boston where she raises roses and consciousness.

Thank you Mari for this fabulous article and I encourage all my readers to check out Mari’s blog and sign up for her newsletter. You won’t be sorry.

As always, keep the pen moving,




February 3, 2014

Read to Write Better!

Filed under: writing techniques — freethepen @ 10:14 pm
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Jan Marquart Author (1)(1)Do you have a favorite author? How many books have you read by that author? There are many benefits to reading everything your favorite author has written:

1. you get to watch the writer grow in his/her craft,

2. you get to study how to become a better writer by reading the varieties of descriptions they use for similar scenes, and

3. you get a better understanding of the author’s writing life which can become quite comforting if judge your struggles as unique.

Having read all of Elizabeth Berg’s books, I have found her descriptions of similar scenes inspiring to continue to search for different perspectives on the same theme. Finding these gems in stories can widen your use of the craft. One of the things see describes in many of her books is: snow. Below is a list of four descriptions of snow she used in four of her books.

1. I could not locate my favorite description of snow to relay it to you verbatim, but I will paraphrase.

She describes snow as ‘communion wafers’.

2. In True to Form, p.29, she writes:

White snow covers tan

It looks to me like crumb cake

Nourishment for eyes.

3. In Open House, p. 169, she writes:

Snow is falling lazily, fat flakes that look like cut-up pieces of lace.

4. In The Pull of the Moon, p. 85, she writes:

I want one bedroom painted a blue leaning toward purple, and I want that room kept empty except

for the fill of light and the dust motes, drifting down like inside snow.

5. In Range of Motion, p. 89, she writes:

Winter and the snow falling in fat flakes, a silhouette before glass, fire.

So the next time you are enamored by an author, buy another one of his/her books and see what he/she can teach you about writing creatively. I promise you, descriptions will be interwoven in the story so pay attention. I am not a big proponent of writing in books but a pencil can always be erased and post-it notes are wonderful tags to quickly identify tips when you need them.

Read everything, write enough to keep the pen moving,

Jan, CEO and Founder of About the Author Network

contact me at:

October 11, 2011

Are Your Characters Realistic?

Filed under: writing techniques — freethepen @ 4:42 pm

This might seem as if I’m stating the obvious, but your characters and the situations you put them in MUST be realistic. I’ve edited several manuscripts in which scenes and the response of characters were off track. I’ll share some of them with you and let you decide.

In one manuscript a young female scientist was assaulted by one of her co-workers with whom she was engaged in a short romantic relationship. The rape scene was written in excruciatingly realistic details. They struggled by the fire as she tried to break up with him and ward off his sexual advances. The struggle got violent. He took a knife and sliced open her cheek, ripped her clothing. There was blood everywhere. Afterwards he fled from the home and the woman got up, drove to her friend’s home, sat and drank a cup of tea while trying to decide whether to report her co-worker. Okay, what is wrong with this picture? Would you sit and have a cup of tea with a woman whose face was bleeding and whose clothes were torn who had just been raped? Would you not call the police, get her to the hospital, give her clean clothes? None of the conversation or action went to anything along those lines. What would you do if you had been raped and cut? What would you do if you opened the door and saw your friend’s face open and bleeding with torn clothing?

In another manuscript an alcoholic mother verbally abused her teenage daughter, denied her basic needs and slept with any man she met often with the teen in view of it all. But the author made references to the mother as a kind and caring mother. I know alcoholics can be Dr. Jeckyls and Mr. Hydes but show that discrepancy through the mother’s behavior, not the author’s description or commentary. In discussing these contradictions in the manuscript with the author, she told me she was trying to resolve conflicts she had with her own alcoholic mother. The author used her manuscript, which was a novel, as a way to proclaim her own love for her mother in spite of the pain inflicted on her. That’s okay to do, but write it as a memoir if that’s your plan. Work it out in a venue that makes it realistic and seduces the compassion of the reader.
Does this make sense to you?

A book I read years ago described a female character and her relationship to a man she met. The author revealed the woman’s internal thoughts about that man as nontrusting but her behavior continued throughout the story as loving and desirous of a relationship with him. I kept waiting for an explanation of this discrepancy. Unless the story is about a woman struggling to keep herself safe from a sociopath, this dynamic was unrealistic. There was no mention of the woman having a mental health disorder either. Something to substantiate the actions of the woman in line with her thoughts and fears was missing. Perhaps if the author didn’t describe in acute detail the thoughts of the woman, her desires for the man would have made sense. As it was written, this woman’s behavior made no sense.

Examine your characters and the scenes they are in. Read them to several people and ask if the character and the scenes of events that follow are realistic.

When I wrote Kate’s Way I had to make sure that the character Joker, a schizophrenic, was realistic in his behavior as well as the inpatient unit in which he was placed. Luckily, being a social worker and having worked with that mental health center, I had facts to draw upon. Even so, I had therapist friends read it just in case I missed something while I was working on the overall plot. Details need to be realistic.

Until next time,
keep it real,



October 1, 2011

The Power of Eliminating in Writing

Filed under: writing techniques — freethepen @ 7:11 pm

Unless you are writing a stream of consciousness piece or a memoir, you might be overusing pronouns. Narratives too often use many pronouns, but are they really necessary to begin with? Practice writing by avoiding pronouns and instead add words of actions. Your written piece might just get a fresh new flavor. Try it. Take a paragraph or short piece. Circle all the pronouns and remove them.

If you don’t have a piece of your own to work on, try these sentences:

1. She walked up the stairs because she felt something was going on in her bedroom.

2. In her mailbox was a note from her mother who, she believed, loved her dearly.

3. His job was calling him to work overtime so he could pay for all the things his wife wanted.

4. He knew if he went to the movies he would run into his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend.

5. The cat played until it fell over and then it slept until they all came home from their busy jobs.

Re-write these sentences. Send them to me. Tell me what you learned.

Until next time.

keep the pen free.


September 6, 2011

Got a Second for a Smile?

Filed under: writing techniques — freethepen @ 2:40 pm

Maybe you don’t think you have a second because your job, family, friends, facebook, twitter and daily needs to eat and sleep take your entire day. I agree that there are activities we must do. Yet, there are also activities we choose to do like facebook, twitter, texting and the like. How we construct our days can become more of a choice than we sometimes want to realize. For instance, as a single woman I have to do everything from washing the car, to balancing the checkbook to taking out the garbage or doing laundry. I know that managing a life with or without help can be burdensome. That being said, it is important to remember that giving a simple smile, despite all the busyness, can make a world of difference.

Maybe you heard this story. A man walking down the street took a second to smile at a teenager. The next day the teenager ran across that man’s path and confronted him. “Remember when you smiled at me yesterday?” he asked the man. The man barely remembered. “I was thinking of killing myself,” the teen said. “But somehow when you smiled at me I felt a little better and then decided not to kill myself.” The man looked stunned; he barely remembered the teen let alone smiling at him. “Thank you,” the teen said and walked away.

We never know what is happening on the inside of people. One day when I owned a clothing store a male customer came in with his wife. I greeted them and the wife barely acknowledged me, although she was polite, and her husband seemed to have an attitude that had the potential to ruin my day. When the couple approached me for a small sale I asked what brought them to town. It was a tourist town and my shop was right in the middle of the hotel area. I smiled and made eye contact with the couple thinking they probably didn’t want to engage in any conversation with me. Then the man spoke. “We came here to bury my son,” he said, “he just committed suicide.” They stood in my shop for almost 30 minutes talking about what they were going through; they then asked me why I sold organic clothing. I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I not smiled or looked then in the eye. I wonder if I had just taken their money without acknowledgment of them, if they would have opened up to me. Another reminder not to judge people without information beyond what we see; we never know the road they are traveling on. I don’t know what my attitude would have been if I had been in the same position as that father; maybe it would have been more cranky. This link will take you to a page where you can purchase smile cards. Why smile cards? Why not! Hand them out. You never know who might need a smile. You never know whose life you might change or whose path you might lighten. And if you don’t think it will do anything for you in return, think of this: a smile uses every muscle in your face so you will get exercise in important places. Remember: a smile lightens the heart, yours and the person you are giving it to.

For all you writers reading this who would like to do something in addition to a simple smile, write a positive sentence, print it out on business cards and leave them wherever you go. When you go to lunch leave one on the table for the waiter. When you pass cars, slip them under windshield wipers. When you take a walk, drop them on someone’s doorstep. Who says writing has to be long and difficult. Write one sentence, pass it around. Write one word, pass it around. Write to heal. It works. Write to heal for youself. Write to heal for others. Speechless? Smile.

Until next time, keep the pen moving,


September 2, 2011


Filed under: writing techniques — freethepen @ 7:20 pm
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Years ago I thought it was cheating to use a thesauras. That probably sounds silly, I know, but I thought using a thesauras was tantamount to cheating and I wanted my writing to be original, creative and MINE.

But, in a writing workshop one winter, I sat with 60 writers who spoke about the tools they wouldn’t do without. I was stunned when several of them stated that they couldn’t or wouldn’t sit to write without a thesauras.

Listening to them threw me back on my own crazy thinking. At the time, I believed I had to depend solely on my own wisdown, learn from the bottom up so to speak, and I wouldn’t dream of using a book to supply me with words. After all, didn’t good writers come up with everything on their own?

At this point, I can only laugh at myself looking back on my strange and dysfunctional belief that the only way I was going to become a good writer was to dig deep and do it alone. Alone? Really? Then it dawned on me: I was raised believing that if I needed help I was deficient or weak. Are any of you relating to this? The fact is that with any craft, craftsmen use tools — tools refine the creative process. No wonder I was struggling; I might as well have written with stone and chisel.

Over decades of furiously writing, I have learned that this pattern of thinking created more problems than it was worth, ones that I could have sidestepped if only I had opened and allowed myself to receive the tools of the masters. But there again, another old belief pattern: it is better to give than receive. In my mind receiving help meant I was selfish and there was no way I wanted to be selfish. Everyone knows selfishness is a negative attribute. Don’t we?

I’ve met many writers during the years  who wouldn’t let anyone comment on their work because they wanted to present  their raw and original work. Then when agents wouldn’t accept their manuscripts because they needed more work or had major errors in plot and characterization, the writers went home and wept. In so many ways, writing has healed, opened up and changed my life. It hasn’t been just the written word; it has been the psychological, spiritual, emotional and mental process of it all. Being a writer demands ingratiating self confrontation.

So go ahead, write your story with your own thoughts, then let someone help you find the diamond in the charcoal.  That’s what my thesauras  does for me and subsequently, I too, now depend on that handy dandy little book. It is a joy of a helper and it emboldens me to study and learn new words. It has taught me to reach out for help. Not only that, it gives it.

Until next time,

Keep the pen moving,


July 12, 2011

Cleaning Up Your Life to Stay Healthy

Filed under: writing techniques — freethepen @ 6:47 pm
Tags: , ,

Seventy percent of the current population is chemically sensitive– right now– so if you think this article does not apply to you, think again. You might not be as sick as those in Dr. Rei’s clinic in Dallas, the only clinic for the environmentally effected. But I promise you, there is something in the environment that you cannot be around and be comfortable. Think about it. Cigarette smoke is one of those major smells that deleteriously effects many people, perfume another and also the smell of gasoline while pumping gasoline into a car.

Considering the fact that we are exposed to approximately 80,000 chemicals a day — we are in big trouble. This statistic makes the preponderance of cancer understandable. The unfortunate aspect of all this is that as long as we stay busy, take medicine instead of searching out the cause of illness and remain complacent about what the EPA and other companies are getting away with, we will remain physically in danger. There is a fantastic movement by Earthjustice, Wildlife Federation and other organizations to save our planet. Trust me! As a woman who has been so sick in the past (thank you God) that I couldn’t be around scotch tape, we cannot live without our environment. Pres. Obama just lessened the limit on formaldehyde that companies put into plywood and particle board. If you are remodeling or building anything, know that insulation, OSB products, paints, thinners, you name it — all contain formaldehyde. AFM is a great company to get organic building and household products. They ship out of California and Colorado. Get Co-op Green America for a telephone book directory ($10) for a list of all sources.

I could write a book on this and maybe one day I will sit with all my resources and do just that. For the time being, I’m going to suggest a few things to slowly change into your life. This can seem overwhelming but a friend of mine changed one or two things each time she shopped and within a year her home was organic and non-toxic.

So–here is what I recommend:

1. Buy organic foods. If you can’t afford them or they are not available then soak in white vinegar and rinse well. Keep in mind white vinegar is edible.

2. Clean your house with non-toxic products. If you are using standard products you are toxifying your home. Use white vinegar, lemon juice, borax and baking soda. I have a spray bottle of white vinegar and water and spray it on everything. White vinegar is an anti-microbial and anti-fungal and is more effective than bleach. Check out Gaiam’s website for clothing and household products.

3. Don’t use any product with 1. fragrance or 2. corn syrup

4. Wash new clothes with 1/4 cup of white vinegar to help remove toxins. It might take several washes for this to work. Buy clothing made with organic cotton, bamboo and soy. It is amazing what caring people are doing to save the rest of us from ourselves. Check out Gaiam, Dreamwords, Bio-Kleen, Indigineous Design, Earth Speaks.

5. Don’t use your cell phone in your car. Now I know you are thinking that this request has to do with safety and yes, it does. What happens when you use cell phones in your car is that whatever the cell phone gives off hits the metal in your car and comes back at you. If I had my way there would be no cell phones. Brain tumors are up 5% because of them and Canada and I believe Sweden has banned them for children under 12.

Be willing to face the discomfort of changing your lifestyle a little in order to save your life.

That’s all for now. If you follow these suggestions during the next month you will have made a huge step towards keeping you and your loved ones healthier.

Until next time, Jan

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