Archive | April, 2012

(One Year Later) The Catharsis of Writing

27 Apr

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since the devastating tornadoes of 2011 swept through my part of the country. The unmatched storms of April 27 destroyed much of my beloved Tuscaloosa, Alabama (home of my college years) and then powered its way though two of our neighboring towns (Concord and Pleasant Grove, Alabama). After the initial chaos and sadness for friends who lost so much, we went into action. I helped with relief efforts by collecting water, distributing clothes and household goods, even helping move debris from what was left of people’s homes.

As a writer, though, I found that much of my help came in the form of putting our experiences and stories into words. Many of the words came in the form of private musings, hidden in computer files and meant only for my eyes. Others came in the form of interviews with relief workers and victims and ordinary folks who just wanted to make a difference; hearing their stories and then sharing them with readers of local newspapers and online publications helped in my own healing.

On this anniversary of last year’s storms, I wanted to share one of those stories with you. It’s an amazing story of a survivor and the community that saved him, first printed in The Western Star of Bessemer, Alabama, on April 30, 2011.

(And, on a related note, The Tuscaloosa News was awarded this past week The Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News on its reporting of the storms. You can learn more about the award and read stories HERE at the Pulitzer site.)

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“Neighbors, Strangers Create a Tornado Miracle”

Ray Watson and his family know this unequivocal truth: The kindness of neighbors—and strangers—can save a life.

Watson and his wife, Norma,  braced for the April 27 tornado as it barreled toward Pleasant Grove. As sirens blared and warnings sounded, they knew that the impending storm could be bad; in what they thought would be the safest move, they sought refuge (as many did that day) in their basement.

When the tornado arrived in their town, it spared most of their home; houses a block away were destroyed. It didn’t spare Watson’s leg, however.

The seemingly safe Watson basement was bombarded by the tornado’s powerful winds which picked up a concrete slab and hurtled it toward the couple. Watson pushed his wife out of the way but, as a result, found his legs pinned under the monstrous slab.

Watson’s sister, Holly Hankins, said that what happened next—even the small coincidences—are powerful reminders that miracles still happen.

“Norma got on the phone and called 911, but no workers could get through,” Hankins said. “One fireman did make it to them on foot, but it was their neighbors and even strangers who were able to save him.”

Watson’s niece, Catey Hall, found out just minutes after the tornado hit that her uncle was in a dire situation. “My dad got word about Uncle Ray and he immediately left to pick up his lifelong friend Martin Tucker and his brother, Austin,” Hall said.

The Tuckers lived just a few minutes from the Watsons and had one unharmed vehicle—an old Ford F-150. “They navigated the half mile drive to Ray’s house driving over trees, through yards and blown down houses,” Hall said. In the process, the truck’s axel was destroyed and is now undriveable.

In the meantime, nurse Sherry Brazelton had set out on foot from her Highland Forrest neighborhood looking for anyone who might need help. When she came upon Norma crying in front of her house she asked if she could help. Norma responded, “My husband’s bleeding to death.”

“When the concrete slab fell, it fell on his leg and caused an artery bleed,” Hankins said. “The challenge was getting him out of there before he bled to death.”

Neighbors—including the Watsons’ close friend, Jerry Stitzel—began working furiously to get Ray out from under the concrete. They eventually got him loose, then carried him out on a door ripped from his own house. Brazelton immediately made a tourniquet for his leg, did everything she could to slow the bleeding, and forced him to continuously drink water. She and his neighbors piled into the back of the Ford, while the Austins begin driving through the debris that covered the neighborhood’s yards and roads.

“Outside Pleasant Grove, my brother Matt Watson and his father-in-law were desperately trying to get into the city,” Hall said. “After driving through softball fields and yards, they met up with Matt’s friend John Fields, a local homebuilder who had equipment out in the roads trying to clear for rescue teans. Matt climbed up into the seat of a massive front loader and bulldozed his way toward his uncle’s house.”

They soon met up with the truck carrying Watson and Brazelton, who was still working furiously to keep Watson hydrated and conscious. She knew he wouldn’t make it much longer if they didn’t get him to help.

Leading the way with the bulldozer, Matt Watson helped the truck find its way out of the demolished neighborhoods and hours later (although just miles away) they arrived at the city hall which now served as a triage center. They loaded Watson into an ambulance and Brazelton rode with him onto UAB. At one point, Watson looked down at his injury and said, “I’m gonna lose that foot.”

Two days later, Watson emerged from a fog of sedatives and found out that he had indeed lost that foot; his leg had been removed from above the knee. He also found out about the other losses he suffered—the house, and camper, and car, and cat that had been lost in the storm.

Even with his losses, however, he stayed positive and grateful. He joked that his family would have to start calling him Lieutenant Dan (the leg-less character from “Forrest Gump”) and was concerned about the truck that his neighbor had destroyed in trying to rescue him.

Hankins said that his brother knows he’s alive because of the love, concern, and hard work of neighbors, family members, and a nurse that didn’t even know him. “We all know that if weren’t for that whole community working together, he would have bled to death,” she said. “And that’s just a miracle.”


The Only Thing we Have to Fear is…

24 Apr

People have a lot of crazy fears.

I’m deathly afraid of heights and clowns. I have a friend who is scared of bridges and another who is terrified of spiders. And I’m sure you have your share of phobias.

We often have a lot of fear in our writing lives as well. As either published authors or aspiring writers, we let fear get in our way of succeeding…sometimes we let it get in the way of even trying in the first place.

As writers, what are we afraid of?

We are afraid of putting our thoughts into words, onto paper. We are then afraid of putting our words out there for the world to see. We are afraid of not being as good as some other writer. We are afraid of what other people will think of our writing. We are afraid of being rejected by an editor.

We are afraid of too much!

You should always do your very best at your writing. You should strive to be perfect; you should strive to always be professional; and you should always give it your all-and-all.

But…that doesn’t mean you will be perfect, or that your writing will always turn out the way you want it to.

Writing is an avocation that involves “sticking your neck out there.” You must be brave and courageous, not fearful of your feelings, your misplaced commas, your reaction from other people, or your would-be editors.

Remember what FDR said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I believe that is so true in regards to our writing aspirations. We cannot wallow in our fear simply for the sake of being fearful. We must face our fears, challenge our fears, have confidence in our abilities, rise up to the occasion, and do everything we can to succeed despite our insecurities.

As you get ready this day to put some words onto paper (or send a story to an editor, or write a query letter, or simply tell someone “I am a writer”), don’t let fear into the equation.

~~ If fear is a problem for you, consider these questions and exercise…

* What is the biggest fear you have about writing?

* Make a list of ways you can try and conquer this fear.

* Write a few paragraphs about your fear in a creative way (such as: in the form of a poem, prayer, or dialogue between two characters.)

Giveaway Winner!

23 Apr

Good morning, writers!

A random drawing of names this morning (all of your names were put in a big bowl, then I randomly picked out a name) results in the announcement that the winner of poet Irene Latham’s book The Color of Lost Rooms is…

Ruth (comment name “haitiruth”)

Please email me ( or Facebook message me (FB name “Writing with Cheryl” or “Cheryl Sloan Wray”) your mailing address so we can get the book out to you.


And for those of you have visited me here at Writing with Cheryl for the first time in the last couple of days, I am glad to meet you. Please come back often; I have a lot of good, informative, inspiring stuff on its way to the site and blog.

Have a wonderful Monday!


Insights & Inspiration from poet Irene Latham (and…a giveaway!)

19 Apr

In celebration of National Poetry Month, I’m turning to an accomplished and published poet to share some insights with all of you about the nature of poetry, the places to get published, and some ways to make this month a celebratory (and literary) one.

Irene Latham has had her poems published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, is the author of two collections of poetry (The Color of Lost Rooms and What Came Before), and serves as the poetry editor of the Birmingham (Ala.) Arts Journal. She is a frequent speaker on poetry at writing conferences and classes, and is a rising voice among Southern poets.

I hope that her responses to my questions will motivate you (as they did me!), whether you are a poet or simply enjoy poetry.

Writing with Cheryl: Tell me a little bit about how you developed an interest in poetry.

Irene: Family legend has it that I have been writing poetry ever since I could write. Back then I was writing love poems — for my mother. I’m still writing love poems for my mother! I’ve published in all sorts of journals,
literary magazines and anthologies, and now have two collections available.

WWC: What is so appealing to you about poetry…both reading it and writing it?

Irene: For me, reading poetry is as necessary as prayer. It helps me see the world in a different way, it opens me and helps me discover things about myself. I love the challenge of writing in such a compressed form where every syllable
matters (and if it doesn’t, its your job to cut those syllables!). I feel like I am diving into the center of existence when I write poetry. It’s very much an emotional experience.

WWC: What seems to inspire you most in writing poetry? Do you write about certain topics, or is it a personal experience that gets you, and so forth?

Irene: I am particularly drawn to the subjects of love, loss and longing. My work seems to revolve a lot around exploring relationships and roles like parent, child, friend, spouse, lover. My life isn’t quite interesting enough, so I often turn to historical figures like Mary Todd Lincoln or Einstein’s daughter to engage my curiosity. I’ve also done a whole series of poems inspired by paintings that hang in the Nationial Museum of Art by Women in Washington, DC. Many of those poems appear in my book THE COLOR OF LOST ROOMS. I just completed a new collection in which I used the historic photos from U.S National Parks and wrote poems to accompany them. Some of the photos are landscapes, some of park visitors, some of the various wildlife. I am looking for a publisher who will publish both the photos alongside the poems.

WWC: Are there many opportunities for people to get published as a poet? How would a poet learn more about getting published?

Irene: Thanks to the Internet, there are more opportunities now for publication than ever before. I invite poets to submit poems to Birmingham Arts Journal, which appears both online and in print (www.birminghamartsjournal,com). The unfortunate truth is that poetry is generally not a paying market. People who write it seem to be drawn to it for very personal reasons and find gratification in getting their poems read by others. The good news is, most magazines publish submission guidelines on their websites. For a list of publications that accept poetry submissions, check Poets & Writers ( 

WWC: Who are your favorite poets to read?

Irene: My go-to answer for this question is Mary Oliver and Sharon Olds. But I find I get even more excited about discovering new voices in my own submission files for Birmingham Arts Journal. So many wonderful poets are out there writing beautiful poems. It’s unfortunate that the general population is only aware of the famous few, like Billy Collins and Maya Angelou.

WWC: What are some ideas you would give to people who are not necessarily poets (but might still be interested in learning more about poetry) to celebrate National Poetry Month?

Irene: Subscribe to Your Daily Poem ( I love the editor’s selections because they are from regular people and the poems tend to be very accessible to the average person. You don’t have to be a poet to appreciate these poems. Go back and revisit poems you may have been exposed to in childhood, like Shel Silverstein or Dr. Suess. On April 26 (Poem in Your Pocket Day), carry the poem in your pocket. Share it with others. A little bit of poetry can go a long way! More ideas can be found at Also, check out the Progressive Poem now in progress through the end of April. (I had the honor of contributing the first line.) You can find the schedule for following the Progressive Poem as well as some other great National Poetry Month happenings at

And now…how about a giveway?

Irene has been so generous to donate a copy of her poetry book The Color of Lost Rooms for one lucky reader of this site/blog. If you’d like to be considered for the free book, make a comment on this post; I will draw a random comment on Monday, April 23 and post the winner that morning.

Good luck, and many thanks to Irene for her wonderful insights.

A “writerly” sense of fashion…

17 Apr

Every time I watch the television show “Castle” (if you don’t watch it, I encourage you to do so; the main character is a writer!), I feel the need to go out and purchase the shirt that Rick Castle wears whenever he accompanies the police officers on a raid or stakeout. While they are wearing their bullet-proof “Police” shirts, he is wearing a shirt that proudly declares his profession.


I love that he wears his vocation and his passion so proudly “on his sleeve.” It makes me want a shirt like that for my own.

Of course, there are other fashion options for writers…my favorite of which is the following shirt.


When I’m having a rough day or someone just rubs me a little bit the wrong way, I’m tempted to enact a little poetic revenge.



Most Popular & Publishable Types of Nonfiction Articles (Part 1)

11 Apr

If you are a writer of nonfiction (for magazines, newspapers, websites), you may want to know what type of writing you should focus on. You may ask: What types of articles are most popular? Which articles should I devote my time to?

To make the most of your efforts, it’s important to understand the markets for which you want to write. You need to spend some time understanding what’s in the pages of that magazine or what’s most needed by the editor of a particular website.

The most basic place to start is at an understanding of what types of pieces you might consider selling. In this first part of a two-part entry, here are the most popular types of nonfiction articles you see in print today. Consider if they are the type of writing you’d like to publish.

How-to Articles

One primary reason people read magazines — or newspapers, or websites, or nonfiction books — is to learn how to do something. Most magazines strive to provide information for their readers that will make their lives easier, more productive, less stressful, or more enriching. How-to articles fill this need by providing step-by-step, usually simple, information for readers.

Open the magazine closest to you, and chances are you will quickly find a how-to article. Readers are told how to do almost anything, from how to lose weight, to how to improve job productivity, to how to encourage their child’s productivity, to how to save money at the grocery store, to how to make their marriage stronger.

Most freelancers should consider writing how-to stories. They are some of the easiest to research and write, simply because they are usually straightforward and not too complex. Most of us can tell someone how to do something. Everyone has an expertise — and if you don’t, you can interview someone who does. Therefore, material for a how-to article can come from personal experience or from interviewing an expert on the topic.

Although how-to articles are easy to write, that does not mean that they should not be written well. Even with a simple idea, you should be challenged to write about it in a way that a reader will find entertaining. You want to enhance your how-to piece with an interesting lead, good anecdotes, and strong examples.

A story on something you might consider bland or even “boring” — such as saving money at the gas pump, for example — can still be written and presented in an interesting way that will both help and entertain the reader.

Informational (or Service) Articles

Informational articles are closely related to how-to pieces. They both provide readers with useful information. Informational articles don’t, though, focus on how readers can do something but provide them with a storehouse of knowledge about a particular subject. They provide a whole slate of information about a topic — roses, breast cancer, Tuscan wineries, marathons, etc. — by providing the traditional 5 W’s learned in journalism training (the who, what, when, where, why, and how of a topic).

Informational articles require research because they must provide as much detail about the topic as possible. They should include good quotes, up-to-date statistics, resource information, and true-to-life examples.

These articles may not seem to be the most exotic to write, but magazines eat them up! They are worth learning how to do. You can make them interesting by selecting topics that particularly interest you and by using effective stylistic devices.

With informational articles, accompanying sidebars can be especially helpful. Sidebars make the articles even more marketable. They provide supplementary information on your topic. Editors find them especially appealing. An article on autism, for example, could include sidebars on resource websites, warning signs in young children, and a real-life story of a an adult with autism.

Personality Profiles (or Interviews)

People love to read about other people, which accounts for the popularity of personality profiles and interviews in most magazines. Profiles and interviews focus on one of two types of people: celebrities (actors, musicians, athletes, business people, leaders, or well-known people in certain fields), or ordinary people who have done something out-of-the-ordinary — people who have been through a crisis and come out stronger, have an unusual hobby, have achieved great success, have a special expertise, or make a special difference in other people’s lives. The people who are the focus of these stories are people who, in one way or another, will make an impression on the reader. They will inspire, or teach, or entertain them in some way.

These articles can be written in either of two ways. As profiles, they include information from the individual who is the focus of the article and information from interviews with friends, family members, colleagues, and anyone else who can add something to the article. As an interview, they contain information just from the person being profiled. They can be presented in a “question and answer” format, or the information from the interview can be incorporated in a narrative structure.

Personal Experience Pieces

The old adage “Write what you know” certainly applies to feature writers. Many magazines will pay for what you know and what you have experienced in the form of personal experience articles and essays.

In thinking about your experiences or things you know about especially well, you should consider if they are things that magazine readers could benefit from. With what aspect of your experience can other people identify? Was it an experience that was especially eye-opening, inspiring, harrowing, humorous, even unbelievable? Is your special knowledge something that can make a difference in the lives of your readers? Can they identify with your feelings or learn how to improve their lives from hearing about your experience and/or knowledge?

You can write about personal experiences in three different ways:

      1. As a narrative story based solely on your experience. Example: an article about your first-person experience traveling to Disney World

      2. As part of a larger article on a particular topic. Example: a how-to piece on taking care of elderly parents and you use your own experiences as a springboard for the article

      3. As an essay based on a personal experience, which provides a more esoteric meaning to the reader. Example:  an essay about your experiences cooking as a child with your grandmother

(Come back for part two of this entry, to learn about investigative articles, roundup pieces, historical articles, travel articles, opinion pieces, and short articles/fillers.)


10 Apr