Category Archives: writing


Michael Caine as Dr. Wilbur Larch  (Wikipedia photo)

Michael Caine as Dr. Wilbur Larch (Wikipedia photo)

CIDAR HOUSE RULES, novel by John Irving.

CIDER HOUSE RULES, novel by John Irving

Many years ago, before my dad’s Alzheimer’s distracted my mom’s writing, and then her own dementia stopped the writing altogether, she had an idea for an adult short story. Prior to that, she’d written children’s stories and poetry.

The idea for the story grew out of an actual event, a hurtful situation caused by a member of the family, and it had nagged at Mom for a long time. She wanted to write it just for herself—to sort it out and get it off her chest, like writers sometimes do—but in case it was ever accidentally found, she wanted to use a fictional location and names for the characters.

Many of the writers in my classes use books of baby names, search telephone books for name ideas, or read headstones at cemeteries.  Another way to study names for characters is read a lot of stories and novels.

Author John Irving’s books contain a variety of fictional characters’ names: Garp, Egg, Owen Meany, Piggy Sneed, etc. One of my favorite Irving novels, CIDER HOUSE RULES, features Dr. Wilbur Larch’s orphanage for children whose mothers did not come to him for abortions, but ended up abandoning their babies after giving birth.

One of the babies who was unsuccessfully adopted several times had been named Homer by Dr. Larch. As an adult, Homer helped choose names for other orphan babies, so the book is full of names. One charming practice at the orphanage is Dr. Larch reading aloud to the orphan boys each night, and closing with this tribute: “Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.” I suspected Mom would choose one of the female characters’ names for her story, and if her story had included a male, she might also have considered the name Wilbur.

If I had a son, I would not name him Wilbur. But through good writing and story telling, I have appreciation for the name. In E.B. White’s 1952 classic, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, the barn spider’s friend is Wilbur the pig.  Wm. Joyce’s book, A DAY WITH WILBUR ROBINSON, is about a twelve-year-old searching for a pair of false teeth. And then there’s Wilbur Wright, co-inventor and co-pilot of the first successful airplane.

Even though the dementia has erased the story Mom wrote and the search for alternate names, I close this post with a tribute to her: “Good night, you princess of Kansas, you queen of kind living and gentle lessons.”

On my walk near the Garden of the Gods yesterday, I saw children with their pet pig.  His name?  Wilbur.  Their advice:

On my walk near the Garden of the Gods yesterday, I saw children with their pet pig. His name? Wilbur. Their advice: “Don’t get too close. He’s hungry.”


Filed under Books and book titles, Dementia/Alzheimer's, Kansas, lessons for great-grandchildren, making a difference, special quotations, writing, writing exercises


ROYGBIV X 2 = a double rainbow.  (picture by Jim Warner)

ROYGBIV x 2 = a double rainbow. (picture by Jim Warner)

M & Ms are acronyms for Mars and Murrie's, the last names of the candy's founders.

M & Ms are acronyms for Mars and Murrie’s, the last names of the candy’s founders.

A golf cart For Sale.  It's a BMW, meaning "Bavarian Motor Works."

A golf cart For Sale. It’s a BMW, the acronym for “Bavarian Motor Works.”

I was in fourth grade when the teacher taught us a tool for remembering the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Thank you, Roy G Biv.

Today we’ve moved beyond teaching tools and abbreviations. Acronyms are used in every industry, in all walks of life. Texting and instant messaging make up a whole new series of acronyms. AFK says we’re away from keyboard; BRB assures we’ll be right back; and if you’re guarding what you’re sharing, POS tells the other person Parents Over Shoulder. BF is Best Friend, BFF is Best Friends Forever; BFFL is Best Friends For Life. It’s touching to know that even the act of identifying and ranking levels of our most important friendships can now be accomplished in acronyms of 2-4 letters.

Some acronyms we know “in general” what they mean. For instance, we know SOS is a call for help, but technically it means “Save Our Souls.” The Latin meanings of the acronyms for i.e. and e.g. are long, complicated, and well…in Latin. The useful meanings are “in other words” for i.e., and “for example” for e.g.   And most of us probably know what a TASER is, but do you know that TASER is the acronym for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle”?

If we’re going to use acronyms, we really should know what they mean. LOL means “laugh out loud,” and therefore shouldn’t be used as part of the message on a sympathy card because you think it means “lots of love.” Sometimes it’s better to write out what we feel instead of taking chances that the acronym might be misinterpreted.

While my parents were still living at home—before my father’s Alzheimer’s and long before my mother’s dementia—I was visiting them when a young girl dropped off some writing materials for my mom. As the teen put them on the coffee table, Mom noticed her colorful bracelet and asked what the letters stood for. The girl smiled and held out her arm to show off the WWJD. “It’s a reminder,” she said. “A question to ask myself…’What Would Jesus Do?’”

Ever helpful and pleasant, my mother smiled and patted the girl’s hand. “Oh, sweetheart, you know there’s a book that actually tells you what Jesus did do.”

The world is changing with acronyms providing faster ways of communicating. It is not TEOTWAWKI—“The End of The World As We Know It”—just another new thing we can choose to embrace or not.

To all of you I say BBS (Be Back Soon) and TTYL (Talk To you Later).  To my mom I don’t say HAGN or TYVM, because she wouldn’t know what those mean. So I say “Have a good night” and “Thank you very much” for being a wonderful mom.

One of the most popular acronym message bracelets of the 1990s.

One of the most popular acronym message bracelets of the 1990s.


Filed under Different kinds of homes, friends, lessons about life, memories for great-grandchildren, writing



Aunt Mary? Mrs. Shepherd?

Aunt Mary? Mrs. Shepherd?



Beth knew the answer.

Beth knew the answer.


"...a rose by any other name..."

“…a rose by any other name…”

My mother’s two years as a kindergarten teacher in Kansas City were rich with stories that took place long before I was born. This is the third story from that time period.

Remember the large group picture of my mother in the back row, posed with the other staff and the kindergarten students? My cousin Beth was visiting that day, so she was included in the picture, too. What the picture doesn’t show is the intense argument she had with one of the little boys in the class. “That’s my Aunt Mary,” Beth told him proudly. “No, it’s not,” he replied indignantly. “That’s Mrs. Shepherd.”

“No, sir.”   “Is too.”   “Uh-uh.”   “Uh-huh.”   Back and forth it went.

My mother made it a teaching moment for the whole class: names can show our relationship to other people ~ Mom, Grandma, Aunt Mary, Mrs. Shepherd, or a nickname like Mary Ibbeth or Mary E.   Names can also make it clear what we do or who we are to others ~ teacher, writer, friend, neighbor. We can have many names, and if someone tells you, “Don’t call me that,” then be polite and don’t use that name.

Writers—including my mother, before the dementia—know that literature has many examples of the importance of a character’s name. “Call me Ishmael,” the opening line of MOBY-DICK, is a classic example. In Neil Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, much importance is attached to the character learning his name and who he is: “Kiss a lover ~ Dance a measure ~ Find your name ~ and buried treasure.”

Jarod Kintz, author of   99 CENTS FOR SOME NONSENSE, had a different perspective. “Male or female, if my name were either Don or Dawn, I’d be up at sunrise to celebrate the glory that is me.”

W.C. Fields said this about the name issue: “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.”   Which he might have taken more seriously if he’d been bullied on the play ground. Or he might have shrugged and said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”   Oh, sure; children aren’t ever hurt by name calling.

My mother never saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s CATS, but she enjoyed T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which was the core of the musical. “…Before a Cat will condescend…To treat you as a trusted friend…A cat’s entitled to expect…These evidences of respect…And so in time you reach your aim, and finally call him by his name.”

The story of my cousin Beth arguing about whether my mother’s name was Aunt Mary or Mrs. Shepherd makes me smile. This Christmas Mom’s dementia is so advanced that I doubt either name—or any of the others—will mean much to her. She fades in and out of life as a child on the farm, and sometimes scenes from working with my dad or raising children.

For those of you who have a loved one in a similar situation, I wish you the simple joys of being together: gentle humor, genuine acceptance, delicious foods and holiday music. In difficult situations, feeling love and hugs are more important than remembering names.

"...and so in time you reach your aim, and finally call him by his name..."

“…and so in time you reach your aim, and finally call him by his name…”



Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, kindergarten lessons about life, life questions, memories for great-grandchildren, special quotations, teaching, writing


"Red Hot Jello" (also known by other names.  All pictures by Marylin Warner.)

“Red Hot Jello” (also known by other names. All pictures by Marylin Warner.)


Federico Fellini said, “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.”

Maybe he was right, but this soon after Thanksgiving, I suggest you try a different combination: a Red Hot Coke recipe, and a no-entry-fee-but-cash-prizes mini-writing contest.

First the recipe. This is easy, everyone loves it, and it’s been a favorite in our family for a very long time. We don’t remember who first shared it, and we’re not even sure what the actual name is. My grandchildren call it “Red Hot Coke Salad” and “Cinnamon Bubble Salad,” and the picture is above.

Here’s the ultra-easy recipe:

Pour one cup boiling water over one large pkg. of Cherry Jello mixed with 1 cup of red hot candies

Whisk or stir until mixed completely together

Add 1 cup of very cold water and 1 cup of chilled applesauce (we like chunky) and stir well

Stir in one-half cup of cold Coke (or Pepsi)   Pour into a bowl and refrigerate

You can stop here and it’s VERY good. You can make it AMAZING by adding Cool Whip–use creamy.

When the Jello mixture is starting to set up, stir in ½ of a small container of softened Cool Whip and put the mixture back in the refrigerator. When it’s all set up, smooth the other ½ container of Cool Whip across the top.   Serve to rave reviews.

Now that you’re energized, jump right into a very short, make-yourself-think-and-take-a-challenge writing contest. Remember several months ago when I published a blog that included a 10-word-max. writing contest. (Remember Hemingway’s 6-word story: “For Sale: Baby shoes. Never Used.”)

Well this contest gives you much more room to write. Create a piece of prose between 20 words and 40 words that tells, shows or evokes a complete story idea. Oh, and anywhere in the story–just once and ONLY ONCE–use the word “refrigerator.” 

Oh, wow! This ties in with the refrigerated Jello recipe, too! Is that serendipity or what?

The salad can be served any time. The story deadline (submitted online) is next Friday, December 5, before midnight (Eastern Time). No entry free. Cash prizes. Details at:

Before her dementia, this is the kind of the thing Mom and I used to do long-distance.  Now she’ll still love the Jello, but she won’t know who I am or that I fixed it. And she’s not writing any more, not even 20 words. But I’m doing both the Red Hot Coke Salad and the mini-writing contest, and I hope you’ll try either one—or both—with me!

One of my mother’s favorite writers, Erma Bombeck, once said, “I am not a glutton ~ I am an explorer of food.”   What a magic combination: exploring both food and writing opportunities!


Another thanks to the Brits for the "Keep Calm" philosophy; I say "have a cupcake and WRITE!"

Another thanks to the Brits for the “Keep Calm” philosophy; I say “have a cupcake and WRITE!”

Need something besides Red Hot Jello to buzz you up for writing?  Stay calm and try cherry-Cherry-chocolate-fudeg cupcakes!

Need something besides Red Hot Jello to buzz you up for writing? Stay calm and try Cherry-chocolate-fudge cupcakes!


Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, special quotations, writing, writing contest with cash prizes, writing exercises


What words would "Mr. Wonderful" say to impress a woman?

What words would “Mr. Wonderful” say to impress a woman?

What would John Bunyan say about Mr. Wonderful's words?

What would John Bunyan say about Mr. Wonderful’s words?

What would a patient Grandpa say to his grandson about fishing?

What would a patient Grandpa say to his grandson about fishing?

In 1871, Lewis Carrolll wrote the nonsense poem, “Jabberwocky.” It begins “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves ~ Did gyre and gimble in the wabe…” It’s a well-known poem, often praised for the flow and sounds of the words, and in every English class there are always some students who swear they understand exactly what Carroll was saying.

Author Roald Dahl (1916-1990) was a prominent novelist, poet and short story writer who was also known for Gobblefunk, his own language. Two examples are “swigpill” (disgusting food), and “splath-winkled” (hurrying about). Despite this special language he scattered through some of his writing, his also wrote this: “Don’t gobblefunk around with words.”

Sometimes words work; sometimes they don’t. All writers know this, and most agree that one place where this is particularly true is when they write dialogue. It either works, or it doesn’t. 

To loosen up the writers in my classes and workshops, I often jumped right into exercises on writing dialogue. My favorite prop was Mr. Wonderful, a 12” doll with a flashy smile, a button-down shirt, khaki pants, and real-tie brown leather shoes. Press the palm of his hand and he said sixteen different phrases—all from the heart—and all as fake as his smile. Two of my favorites were “You know, I think it’s really important that we talk about our relationship,” and “You know, Honey, why don’t you just relax and let me make dinner tonight…and do the dishes.”

It was obvious to both males and females that Mr. Wonderful’s words were stilted and didn’t work.   So the writers were to act as his “coach” and choose any three of his phrases and write what a “real guy” would say. After they’d finished, they were to hand the sheet to another writer who would write what an imaginary Ms. Wonderful would say in response. Everyone relaxed with the dialogue of this fake-to-the-core doll. It was a great way to get started.

Before my mother’s dementia, once when she was visiting I introduced her to Mr. Wonderful. She listened to his phrases and laughed. Then she said that some of the hardest dialogue to write was how children talk, so another exercise for my students could be to write what a young girl or boy would say to Mr. Wonderful, telling him how to dress and what to say. I really liked her idea, and asked if she wanted to try writing some examples.

Mom looked around, shook her head and smiled. In her opinion, the best way to write dialogue was to get comfortable and sit quietly, in a waiting room or a classroom or anywhere adults or children talk and do things. Then listen to what they say, how they pause or move when they say something, if they chatter on and on or speak in short sentences, if they mumble or whine. That’s how you learn to write like people really talk, she said. You listen.

And then she laughed and added that you didn’t want to sit quietly too long. You might fall asleep and then some uppity writer might write about how you sleep with your mouth open or snore.

My mother taught me that getting words right is important, but so is watching and learning. And getting your heart involved, too. As John Bunyan, author of THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS, wrote: “In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

The same is true in life.

This "borrows" from Keep Calm and Carry On.  Write your own version, or choose another well-known saying and rewrite it in your style.

This “borrows” from Keep Calm and Carry On. Write your own version, or choose another well-known saying and rewrite it in your style.


Use the title of this book. Write for five minutes and tell where the men are.

Use the title of this book. Write for five minutes and tell what happened to the men.


Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, experiments, lessons about life, special quotations, teaching, writing, writing exercises


Bull in front of Kansas barn (all pictures by Marylin Warner)

Bull in front of Kansas barn (all pictures by Marylin Warner)


Consider the possible genres: horror? mystery? romance? true crime? or science fiction?

Consider the possible genres: horror? mystery? romance? true crime? science fiction?

On May 2, I wrote a post about a game Mom and I played during some of my visits when she was still in the early stages of dementia.   As I would drive around town, she’d choose a house and answer the question, “What’s Behind the Door?”    It was intended to encourage her to remember tastes, sounds, smells and feelings. We had a lot of fun with the game, and we usually went for an ice cream cone afterwards.

Several of you have asked if I made up other writing prompts.  Here’s another: “Genre-flecting” (thinking about story ideas based on genre types.)

The purpose with my mother was to use different writing genres to inspire ideas for stories and poems. We talked about various genres–mystery, memoir, western, romance, horror, children’s, fantasy, science fiction, etc.–and also combinations of genres: women’s mainstsream, malice domestic mystery, romantic western, narrative poetry, children’s adventure, etc.

We used buildings as the prompts, and once we chose a place, the next step was to create characters, animals, situations or events that happened there. Since I was driving and she was in the passenger seat, I would cite the genre prompt, she’d think about it, and then she’d create a story or poem idea.   For instance, consider the top picture of the bull in front of the barn. If I asked, “What’s going on here that could make a children’s adventure story?” ~ your answer would be very different than if I asked, “What’s going on here that would make a sci-fi/mystery story?”

For those of us who are not participating in this November’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) or National Memoir Writing Month, we have another option.  November 14 is both “I Love To Write Day” AND “Loosen Up, Lighten Up Day.”  

Combine them.  Shake your shoulders loose, grab a pen and write.  Choose one of these pictures or use one of your own or from a magazine; consider a genre you especially like to read—or don’t like to read at all—and set a timer.  Write about “What’s going on here?” for 20 min. or an hour, or for half a page or a full page. Write, and see what ideas or memories emerge. 

The wonderful novelist, essayist and short story writer Anais Nin reminds us this about the importance of writing: “We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection…”  

This November—throughout the month, or on the 14th, or any day—write…and taste life twice.   My mother would be the first to tell you it’s okay to treat yourself with an ice cream cone.

old house at pond      

cabin on open plains

tejon st


Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, Different kinds of homes, lessons about life, special quotations, writing, writing exercises


The national flag of Norway, adopted July, 1821

The national flag of Norway, adopted July, 1821




Red November leaves clinging to tree.  (Pictures by Marylin Warner)

Red leaves clinging to tree. (Pictures by Marylin Warner)

Have you ever noticed the grim way some writers describe the month of November?  

Joseph Addison wrote this: “The gloomy months of November, when people of England hang and drown themselves.” (I double checked, and the word “months” is indeed plural, as if November seems to go on and on, which might explain the hanging and drowning, or maybe it refers to Addison’s interpretation over many years. Whichever it is, I apologize to the people of England; remember, I am only the messenger.)

Emily Dickinson describes November this way: “November always seemed to me the Norway of the year.”  (I used to teach Dickinson in my English classes, and I don’t recall her writing that July is the Sahara of the year, or making any other month/place comparisons…only November.)

My mother’s writing is not well known–and at this point in her dementia, even she doesn’t recognize her own words when I read them aloud to her–but I’d like to share with you a few of her descriptions of November.  I found these typed and handwritten examples stored in her writing box. 

The windblown sleet darts ~ Like tiny ice bullets ~ Against my window pane. 

Wee button noses ~ Beneath eyes of wide wonder   ~ Smudge frosty windows.

And these last two, titled 1 and 2, were followed by a question: which one is better?  If you have a preference or comment, I’ll read them to Mom during my next trip to Kansas…and remind her again that these are her words and Haikus.

#1: Spruce draped in snow-fall ~ Stand silent cold sentinels ~ Against threat’ning skies.

#2: Trees clothed in snow-fall ~ Are strong sentinels guarding ~ Against steel grey skies.

Both of my parents thought that each day had its own beauty, and each month had its own importance and possibility. For my mother, summer months were for planting and gardening; fall and winter months were for knitting and baking; spring months were for hoping and watching new growth. She believed every season was a gift, and all the seasons deserved heartfelt anticipation…and at least a few words of notice and appreciation penned in her notebooks.


Fall clouds on the Kansas horizon

Fall clouds on the Kansas horizon

Maggie on fall hike in Brown's Park, Abilene, KS

Maggie on fall hike in Brown’s Park, Abilene, KS

November picture of Colorado's Pikes Peak

November picture of Colorado’s Pikes Peak


Filed under autumn lessons, Dementia/Alzheimer's, Fort Scott Kansas, lessons about life, Mary Shepherd's poetry, memories for great-grandchildren, special quotations, writing