Have you ever told anyone that you are a writer and the reactions you get are either one of bewilderment or pity?


Or do the people respond by being awe-struck, maybe reverent and then say to themselves: “Wow, I wish I could be a writer…”

Well, then as a public service to them (and maybe for yourself as well), hand them this list that may make them consider that they are attracted to writing.

This might also awaken and inspire them to finally acknowledge and liberate the writer within themselves.


You are a voracious reader and prefer reading to sports, or partying or doing just about anything else.


You take books with you everywhere you go—even to a party.


You read books and are either impressed and amazed by what you read, and so you think, “Gosh, I wish I could write like that…”

Or, you read a book that was so inferior, so annoying, and so often very popular and a best seller that you think, “I bet I could write something better than that!”

You read or hear something in the news or on social media or word of mouth that so enrages, perplexes, surprises, or is incredibly fascinating and maybe even absurd that you think to yourself, “I must write about this—someday.”
You have an inner nagging voice that is urging you to actually sit down and write about that thing you heard about.


You attend live readings by alive writers and no matter how badly they may read their stories in pubic, you are still smitten as though you were watching a movie star at the Academy Awards.

While watching them on stage, you are feeling oddly inspired to write so that you too may one day be published and see your name in print and maybe even read at that same café or book store your hero just read at.


You are reading your favorite short stories and novels more than once—first for entertainment, the latter to focus and study how the writers accomplished writing those  amazing passages that you were enamored by.


You begin to copy and even rewrite those same passages over and over, and dissect them like a code to better understand the secrets of how they did it in their stories.


You are seriously considering taking a writing class.

You actually do.

You are seriously considering joining a writing group.

You actually do.

You are actually seriously writing.


You are!

Cheers, Irene

P.S. Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?


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THE MIDWIFE'S TALE jpg“…Except for icons or Renaissance paintings, and in unpopular non-canonical texts, the midwife at the Nativity is not depicted, never remembered or acknowledged, not even in a cheerful Christmas carol. Oh, there are plenty of mentions of cows and donkeys who are supposedly given the gift of speech on that night—maybe they alone talked about the midwife’s role among themselves, but no one else seems to…” From THE MIDWIFE’S  TALE: A CHRISTMAS STORY.

Unlike the narrator in my story, I am not a midwife. But after years of traditional Nativity stories and crèches and cards and carols, the emphasis has always been that Mary, Jesus’ Mother, was visited and surrounded by men—shepherds and Kings—after that miraculous birth occurred so long ago.

Where were the women during the birth?

Surely at least one woman was on the scene. Birthing children was and still is a exclusively female-oriented event in many cultures, and the midwife would have been the very first witness to Jesus’ appearance on earth.

Unless she was completely alone except for Joseph, her elderly husband to help her deliver the child, it seemed improbable that Mary would not have at least one or two women helping her with the birth.

Growing up, I used to wonder why the midwife never figured at all in any of the Nativity stories, but quickly dismissed her absence because of the prevalence of the other important male characters who were always mentioned and given the spotlight.

Recently, I received a postcard with a replica of an icon from Eastern Europe. I grew up with icons because of my Ukrainian heritage—and so was familiar with the depictions.

But this time, I did a double-take and felt compelled to seriously examine the postcard’s imagery.

On it were the familiar representations of several scenes of the Nativity with a large figure of Mary in the center, and near her, the swaddled baby Jesus in a manger.

Around the central figure of Mary are other smaller scenes indicating several related events: an angel appearing to the shepherds, the Three Kings with their gifts, and of Joseph being tempted by a shepherd (who is really the devil). All very typical in Eastern iconography depicting the Nativity.

But there was another scene painted on the icon. It was a replica of a woman—not Mary—about to wash the infant Jesus in a basin of water.

The midwife!


I never paid attention to her presence on an icon before and I  had to search for her identity and for any biblical sources about her.

Well, typically there wasn’t much at all. However, I did find an unlikely mention of a midwife in a non-canonical text (sources not condoned by traditional Christian churches) called the Gospel of James (Jesus’ brother most likely).

In it, Joseph hides Mary’s “disgrace” as he called it, by having her stay in the cave while he finds a midwife named Salome who does not believe that Mary is a virgin given her condition. That is, until Salome physically examines her.

Afterwards, a miracle of sorts occurs after Salome loses her hand, but it is later restored when holding the infant Jesus.

I didn’t care for this story at all. It’s inelegant, humiliating, and has no real feminine reality as to how women would act and interact in this type of scenario.

And so I made up my own version.

In my book, Joseph has a dream and is told to search for a midwife in the marketplace in Bethlehem. Eventually, he finds her although she is not Semitic, nor local, but rather is a migrant from one of the Slavic tribes and yes, probably from ancient Ukraine.

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She enlists her helpers in the midwife mission for Mary’s delivery, dismisses Joseph who is sent away during the birth, and aides Mary to birth  in the ways that child-bearing was done in those times, and all accomplished in that cave which is more historically accurate than a stable, and far more preferable as a setting for my story version.


I did however want to keep some type of miracle occurring for the midwife, but like any good fiction writer, I included one with a twist of my own.

Because my midwife was a pagan, with her own cultural rituals that she brought with her to Bethlehem from her homeland in the steppes, she had the opportunity to practice her particular skill of soothsaying and prophecy and of course she correctly predicted Jesus’ path.

But she was also given a miracle in return for helping Mary and Joseph and in that plot twist, I hoped to convey the message of universal compassion: the midwife’s sympathy towards the stranded Holy Family and eventually, Jesus’ towards the midwife.

For any writer, it’s always risky to take on a beloved story that is so ingrained in people’s lives and religions, but rather than changing the overall Nativity story, my aim was to enlarge it by one more person who was absolutely present that particular night.

THE MIDWIFE’S TALE: A CHRISTMAS STORY by Irene Zabytko is now available on and

Watch the book trailer at

Irene Zabytko is the author of the novel about Chornobyl, THE SKY UNWASHED, the short story collection, WHEN LUBA LEAVES HOME and the writing guidebook THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION.

For more information and contact:,


When you are ready to submit your manuscript to a traditional publisher, or if you are publishing on your own, that is the time when you have to switch your mindset from writer to editor.

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The story and characters are on the page and screen about to be placed in print and out into the world. What a wonderful accomplishment!

But is it really, really ready?

Artistically, yes. Technically, maybe not yet…

By that I mean the physical look of the manuscript itself that will relay and transmit the content (your story) in the best possible and polished ways.


Your manuscript must be dressed-up and presented in the most professional manner which means that the margins are all uniform (usually, an inch or a bit more on all four sides), the titles, subtitles, and chapters centered, and all words are spelled correctly (unless intentionally misspelled). Ditto with grammar and punctuation.

Sometimes, there are issues that pop up and become glaringly obvious to confront more so in the editing process than in the writing.

For instance, your characters are naming other sources like a play or movie they have seen. Do you place the titles they mention in quotes? Italics? Underlines?

When do you use dashes, and when do you use hyphens?

In fiction, do you write out the numbers or use actual numerals?

How do you write a quote within a quote? Sometimes, characters in dialogue will quote another character.


These type of small, but essential editing choices are vitally important for the end result—no writer wants a reader to stop in the middle of the story and mutter, “Huh—so confusing!”

Traditional publishing houses and other print media (like the almost archaic newspaper) rely on resources called stylebooks. If you are a journalist, or had to write an in-depth research paper for a class, then you may be familiar with these invaluable and very thick and detailed books.

There are three major stylebooks and each publisher uses and will always stick to one (and they expect their writers and editors to adhere to them as well):



The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook—Mostly used by journalists.

The Chicago Manual of Style—Used by all writers; their rules will differ from the AP Stylebook.


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The Modern Language Association (MLA) Style—Used by academics, college students, and useful for fiction writers too.

All are helpful, but can be overwhelming because of all the many, many ways to standardize texts. They are also updated at least annually because English usage evolves and changes.

I have an older version of The Chicago Manual of Style that I use and find very helpful for tangled things such as, how do I name a character from a play that my own character in my story will be acting as (see what I mean by tangled?).

Certainly, traditional and reliable writing resources like The Elements of Style by Strunk & White should still be consulted as needed, but these voluminous stylebooks are the sources for when you need specific, detailed, and professional answers to complicated or bewildering editing choices.

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If stylebooks are far too overwhelming with all the various editing conditions they include, then go online and ask specifically for what you need to know. Usually, a good and useful link will appear.

For instance, here are the links to the editing questions above:

When to italicize and underline or quotes:

When to use hyphens and dashes:

When to use numbers in fiction:

When to use a single or double quote:


And when the editing is all done, and the manuscript sent, then return to your writer mindset and write another story.

Writing Wisdom:

“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”—T.S. Eliot, American/British Poet, Essayist, Playwright.

Cheers, Irene


Irene’s WRITING WISDOM DAILY DIGITAL CALENDAR with great quotes by great writers is now coming to you every day in your email inbox (check your spam files if you are not receiving them).

Catch my new and public blog posts and AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE BLOG SERIES at  and  irenezabytko.wordpress

Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?  Find both in my writing guidebook: THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION: HOW TO WRITE AND IMPROVE YOUR FICTION LIKE THE GREAT LITERARY MASTERS. Available at and


Crickets and Tumbleweeds: The Rejected and Dejected Writer

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There are certain times in any creative person’s life when nothing validating is going on outside of their interior world.

Rejections on everything we send out to publishers, agents, editors, bloggers, magazines etc. return to us like poisonous boomerangs with messages meant to be encouraging but never really are:

“Thank you for thinking of us and even though we read your work with much interest, we feel it’s not a good fit for our publication/publisher/agency and wish you the best of luck of finding a home for it elsewhere. But do try us again…”

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Chances are that this is sent to everyone they reject whether they read your work with much or no interest.

The hardest rejections are the ones where they actually send a personal email or letter stating how much they enjoyed and loved your work. But…nah, they’re not taking it. Ouch!

And then there are the others who don’t send a rejection at all. In fact, they are silent and the writer is left with false hopes thinking that their work is still being considered with at least a little interest.

Time to hit the “pause” button in your soul and to remember the adage that all good creative writing books tell you about rejected work: “it’s not you that’s being rejected, it’s the story.”

That’s a quick balm to ease the soreness at least initially, and we can also read about the many famous writers whose works were rejected multiple times before hitting it big (Stephen King = 30 times, Dr. Seuss = 27 times, etc.).

But that doesn’t really, really help because it’s our work that is being relegated to obscurity, and not those authors who are well beyond this phase of crickets and tumbleweeds.

And so like any heartbreak, here are some other and more prevailing strategies for getting through those tough times when our stories are unloved, unappreciated and unpublishable over and over again.

–Put away the story for a time and work on other stories or simply free write or write in your journal (but write something!).

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–When you’re ready and a bit removed emotionally from the rejected work, analyze why the story is constantly being rejected. Perhaps you are sending it out to the wrong people and publications.

–If you are in a writers’ group or have trusted allies who are good readers and will give you honest feedback, have them read the story for their opinions on its strengths and weaknesses.

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–If the story needs more work, then go to it! Send it out again, even to the places that rejected it before if you strongly feel that it should be published there.

–Rejected again? Well, if you, the writer, feel that it is still a good enough story, but it’s the marketplace that is simply not appreciating what you are offering, then consider self-publishing (I’ll be writing more blogs about that explosive subject in the very near future).

–But whatever you do about trying to publish, don’t give up the writing itself. Even in the times of drought and hopelessness, there is still a deep well in your creative soul that needs nurturance and attention. Keep writing!


Here’s a link to those famous writers whose works were rejected numerous times. It’s worth a glance at least and then move on to your own work:

Writing Wisdom:

“Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”–Harriet Beecher Stowe, American Novelist, Activist.

Cheers, Irene

P.S. Sign up for my weekly Writing Wisdom emails. Free! In addition, you will receive my humorous and helpful booklet: 100 LITERARY CLICHES TO AVOID, SCORN, AND DELETE, plus my report: “THE 7 DEADLY SINS OF ROOKIE FICTION WRITERS” all waiting for you at: 

You’ll also receive the optional WRITING WISDOM DAILY DIGITAL CALENDAR with great quotes by great writers coming to you every day in your email inbox.

Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?  Find both in my writing guidebook: THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION: HOW TO WRITE AND IMPROVE YOUR FICTION LIKE THE GREAT LITERARY MASTERS. Available at and

Catch my new and public blog posts and AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE BLOG SERIES at  and  irenezabytko.wordpress

Irene Zabytko is the author of the novel about Chernobyl, THE SKY UNWASHED (Algonquin), and the short story collection, WHEN LUBA LEAVES HOME (Algonquin).


One of the precepts of fiction writing is “write what you know.” Well, that could be a good thing. Or not.

Most new writers will write about what they know best—themselves.


I do wonder whenever I read a fiction writing student’s bio and then read their stories which are ostensibly about them, why in the world don’t they just write memoirs? Why fiction?

Sure, they change the names, but oftentimes the name of the main protagonist is so similar to the writer’s real name that it’s laughable.

There are of course real events and situations and outcomes that have occurred in our lives based on ourselves and the people we know that can be utilized and fused into fiction. But if these same things are simply borrowed without any real changes, then there’s really no need to write a fictional story at all.


Fiction should be expansive, surprising and unlimited. And whenever a story is taken almost verbatim (except for the names of the characters and maybe where they live), then the writer is hampered by the limitations of the real life story. This can cause problems in many ways.

For instance, the writer will most likely take on a style that is more telling than showing—in other words more narrative than showing action through inner and outer dialogue.  The writer will feel a need to over-explain things in more narrative detail especially if it puts them in a bad light.

There is usually a gushing out of many snippets of the writer’s life that are muddled and although possibly interesting, has no story structure that is decipherable. There is no story—simply a lot of diary type excerpts or observations.

Most likely there will be a lot of unnecessary secondary and tertiary characters floating in and out of the story which bogs down the pacing and the plot.boy-2026064_1280

Or there will be nostalgic anecdotes about the writer. Or it will be a vendetta against mean relatives, or bad lovers, or missed opportunities.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t use our personal lives or experiences or people we know in our stories, but the danger happens if we use them without the creative, imaginative basis for writing a story of fiction.

We then deny the fictional possibilities that can grow and evolve out of the true-life elements of our memoirs.

We inhibit and lose out on the new insights and adventures and even learn something new, profound and unexpected that will illuminate things about ourselves and the lives we lead.

If you find that your stories are only a rerun of your memoir, then consider taking a small fraction of the real life elements, but allow for the story to grow and be shaken up in different ways: new characters, new situations, new narratives, new worlds to invite the reader into.

But if that’s not possible, then stick to memoir. You can still change names and places for privacy reasons. At least the reader will know that the story is really about you.woman-1442373_1920.jpg

Writing Wisdom:

“Your personal boundaries protect the inner core of your identity and your right to choices.”—Gerard Manley Hopkins, British Poet.

Cheers, Irene

Irene Zabytko is the author of the novel about Chornobyl, THE SKY UNWASHED, and the short story collection, WHEN LUBA LEAVES HOME.

P.S. Irene’s WRITING WISDOM DAILY DIGITAL CALENDAR with great quotes by great writers is now coming to you every day in your email inbox (check your spam files if you are not receiving them).

Catch my new and public blog posts and AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE BLOG SERIES at  and  irenezabytko.wordpress

Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?  Find both in my writing guidebook: THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION: HOW TO WRITE AND IMPROVE YOUR FICTION LIKE THE GREAT LITERARY MASTERS. Available at and


© 2018 by Irene Zabytko, all rights reserved.



A few years ago, THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW featured a dual article in which two writers gave their views to the question: “Do Money Woes Spur Creativity of Stifle It?”

That is a question I often battle over as a writer. I’ve had some successes with my writing, and sometimes had a steady income consisting of royalties and grants that sustained me financially so that I can continue to write. But these are not always solid, dependable sources at all.


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In the article, one of the two writers Rivka Glachen doesn’t exactly answer the question out rightly but lists several famous writers who mostly struggled with money issues—even those like Vladimir Nabokov who were born into wealth but later lost it all due to the political upheavals in his native Russia.

The other writers she mentioned had their own particular life crises to deal with which spurred them to continue writing whether they were earning money from doing so or not. Many had other careers even when they sold their books.

The other writer, Moshin Hamid takes a more philosophical tone in which being poor may be a sort of blessing in disguise for a poor writer. If I understand his logic correctly, Hamid makes a correlation between the outer realities of poverty, and the writer’s inner illusions and that “money woes can make a writer look for a tether” to the outside world as a source of the writing itself.

Both are compelling views.


In my opinion having experienced moderate wealth and dire poverty, I can say with great confidence: poverty is never good for a writer.

Poverty is never good for anyone. But for a creative person whose work is not supported by the government, or a family trust fund, or foundation grants, or stock options and who writes because they love it and are called to doing it in their souls, and have a certain talent for it but may not be appreciated or compensated—no, poverty is the very worst thing for them.


Poverty is soul-depleting.

Rather than making one noble, or kinder and compassionate towards others, or allowing us to open our hearts and minds and learn life lessons that will strengthen our moral compass and courage, Poverty destroys our creativity.

Poverty forces the writer to take jobs they hate mostly because these jobs are usually themselves soul-depleting and always, always takes away time from writing.

Poverty is the enabler to all our worse vices: greed, jealousy, bigotry, small mindedness that seep into our psyches when we are not even aware.

Poverty makes us curse and complain about our lot in life thereby magnifying our feelings of bad luck, ill temper, neglect, and despair.

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Poverty enhances our cynicism and limits our ability to take in the goodness of the world which will in turn feed into whatever fictional worlds we create in our writing—that is, if we are still writing.

Usually, we become too exhausted, too depressed, too despairing, too short on time to even think it’s worth doing anymore.

Writing loses its priority because after all we can’t pay the Internet bill, or buy ourselves a decent meal, or afford to fix anything that unexpectedly breaks or stops running (which always happens!).



In my opinion (yet another), poverty is simply horrific for the writer or any creative person. But we have choices and that is to somehow, even a little bit, write under the most oppressive circumstances. If only to remind ourselves that we are not totally defeated.

Great literature can come from poverty-enmeshed writers. Sometimes they are rewarded for their talents, many times they are not.

Only we, the writers, will decide if writing is of any value to our lives.

Here is the NYTBR article I mentioned: “DO MONEY WOES SPUR CREATIVITY OR STIFLE IT?”

Writing Wisdom:

“Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”—J.K. Rowling, British Children’s Author, Novelist, Screenwriter, Television Producer.

Cheers, Irene

P.S. Irene’s WRITING WISDOM DAILY DIGITAL CALENDAR with great quotes by great writers is now coming to you every day in your email inbox. Sign up at for the calendar and other freebies including weekly WRITING WISDOM emails on the art and craft of fiction writing.

My blogs are available at:  and  irenezabytko.wordpress

Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?  Find both in my writing guidebook: THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION: HOW TO WRITE AND IMPROVE YOUR FICTION LIKE THE GREAT LITERARY MASTERS. Available  and

Irene Zabytko is the author of THE SKY UNWASHED and WHEN LUBA LEAVES HOME: STORIES. Both published by Algonquin Books.

© 2018 by Irene Zabytko, all rights reserved.




First responders carrying a “closed zone” sign  following the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, April 26, 1986.  (Photo courtesy of the Ukrainian National Chornobyl Museum, Kyiv, Ukraine).

My first published novel, THE SKY UNWASHED is based on a true story. The heroines are a group of elderly women who returned to their deserted and highly contaminated village in the “dead zone,” the areas surrounding the Chornobyl (Ukrainian transliteration of “Chernobyl”) nuclear power plant, the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident.

Those surrounding, mostly rural areas were highly irradiated after the core of reactor number four exploded on April 26, 1986 at 1:23 a.m. causing fires, a nuclear meltdown, and sending out a radioactive cloud that blanketed Ukraine, Belarus, Scandinavia, Western Europe and beyond.


Helicopter view of the Chornobyl nuclear explosion, April, 1986. (Photo courtesy of the Ukrainian National Chornobyl  Museum, Kyiv, Ukraine).

My fictional family, the Petrinkos headed by the matriarch Marusia, lived in one of those villages along with her son, Yurko, and daughter-in-law Zosia and their two young children. Yurko and Zosia worked at the Chornobyl power plant and despite their bickering, life was relatively peaceful in their lives until that horrible night in April.

The villagers were not evacuated until a week later and told that they would only be gone for a few days. Most of them never returned to their highly irradiated homes. But Marusia did, and she returned only to find herself alone in a toxic ghost-village and in the deadliest place on the planet.


Irene Zabytko in front of the destroyed nuclear reactor now rebuilt and encased, Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Chornobyl, Ukraine. (Photo: Irene Zabytko collection).

Later, other displaced village women also returned and together they defy the Soviet authorities facing arrest and the end of their lives.

I first got the idea for my book after reading an article in The Ukrainian Weekly about the displaced Chornobyl evacuees who illegally returned to the most toxic place on the planet because they had nowhere to go. I thought—I must write about this…

But I didn’t begin writing until after I happened to be re-reading John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH and was blown away by how elegant and profound the opening chapter was. I wanted to write something as fabulous as that book, so I basically followed and mirrored Steinbeck’s writing about the men and women who were tilling the Oklahoma red earth before the dust storms came and they were forced to leave, and then turned it into my men and women tilling their own earth in Ukraine before Chornobyl exploded and they were also forced to leave.

In Steinbeck’s novel, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, the Joads, an Oklahoma farm family, are forced off their land because of a serious draught (the dustbowl conditions of the 1930s), and unscrupulous bankers. They leave their home to journey to California and become itinerant farmers where they are exploited by the landowners.


Evacuees leaving the “dead zone” after the Chornobyl nuclear reactor explosion. ( (Photo courtesy of the Ukrainian National Chornobyl  Museum, Kyiv, Ukraine).

My characters suffer a similar fate. Chornobyl’s own destructive chain reaction caused them to leave their ancestral land, and displacing the villagers who are lied to in the process. No one ever knew how toxic the nuclear radiation was and so when Marusia and later a few more women return, they had to make life and death choices.


Irene Zabytko in front of the abandoned ferris wheel in Pripiat, Chornobyl Exclusion Zone (Photo: Irene Zabytko collection).

Now looking back and re-reading my own novel on this 32nd anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear accident, I am reminded of my gratitude to Steinbeck for forging the literary territory that encouraged and enabled me to write a story that I  hope is still relevant, and most importantly, universal–especially for those in the entire world who are still being displaced, powerless, and forgotten because they happened to have their homes situated in the middle of a cataclysmic event they had nothing to do with.



THE SKY UNWASHED is available on,, and wherever books are sold.


More information about Chornobyl and THE SKY UNWASHED can be found at and

Many thanks to the Ukrainian National Museum “Chornobyl,” Kyiv Ukraine, for the use of their archival photos.

The Ukrainian Weekly is an English language publication with great, factual reportage of Ukraine-related news.





Because I love and write literary fiction, I will usually watch films that are based on the short stories and novels I had read and admired.

And it naturally follows that whenever I write a fictional story, I tend to think not only of how it might be adapted on the screen for a film one day (and who will star in it), but even more importantly, what the music score will sound like.

In my insular, private projector-mind, I yearn for a soundtrack that will enhance the plot points and evoke the necessary moods and emotions of the characters and scenes without intrusion, and yet the music can stand on its own and remain memorable long after the film is over and faded to black.

There doesn’t seem to be a rich cache of film scores based on literary stories that I can recall (not even the musical Oliver! based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist which I admit I never liked very much—the musical I mean).

As for more contemporary films well, who can hum the theme to Ian McEwan’s novel-turned-film Atonement for instance. The characters, story line and acting were all memorable and fabulous—but the music? Was there any?

And if there was, it tends to sound alike, meaning canned Hollywood John Williamesque themes.

So pervasive are Hollywood generic musical scores that I usually ignore them. And then I saw the movie based on the fabulous short story by Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain which made me conscious and aware of how stories on film—this one in particular—was infused and symbiotic with the exquisite music.

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I immediately fell in love and was emotionally pulled into the story more so because of the haunting, poignant, and beautiful soundtrack that made me cry for the doomed characters even when I listened to it without the film.

The composer, Gustavo Santalallo, is a world-class Argentine musician who deservedly won the Academy Award for the Brokeback Mountain score in 2005. He also won the next year for his work on the movie Babel.

He also composed another equally magnificent soundtrack for the movie The Motorcycle Diaries (based on the travel diaries of Che Guevara) which I also found incredibly brilliant and hypnotic.

The reason why I mention him is because I had the rare (and rather serendipitous) opportunity to see and hear Gustavo Santalallo perform in person. He and other musicians were offering a free concert during a conference hosted by Gladdening Light, a non-denominational organization with an enticing motto, “where spirit meets art.”

Their mission is to explore the transcendent elements of art and spirituality through events like their annual Symposium which this year had the provocative theme of: The Spiritual Lens: Evocations on Poetry, Music and Film.

I was sorry to have missed the poetry, film screenings, and speakers, and especially the keynote talk by Krista Tippet, the host of the excellent National Public Radio program On Being, but oh, did I enjoy the music.


It was very generous of Gladdening Light to open the concert to the non-participants, otherwise I would have missed not only seeing Gustavo Santalollo perform, but also the other extraordinary musicians and singers who appeared that evening: the world music trio of Free Planet Radio, and the singers Virginia Schenk and Owen Ó Súilleabháin—all extraordinary and fabulous!

But it was Gustavo who in his quiet, even unassuming manner while playing his native stringed instrument, the ronroco, truly combined the ethereal ideals of spirit meeting art and also genius.

Backed by Free Planet Radio, the live presence of his playing those famous movie themes was transcendent in how it touched us in the audience. There was a palpable collective thrill that ignited our energy—we were hushed and enthralled at first, but then the more he played, the more we united with him enough to stand up, sway, dance, and clap along with his music.



Academy Award winning composer, musician Gustavo Santalallo and my friends Barbara and Nelson Betancourt at the Gladdening Light Concert, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida.

I know his music opened my mind and creative spirit even more after that evening.  In particular, Brokeback Mountain continues to play in my head and on my computer because it is one of the soundtracks I listen to (even subconsciously) when I write my own stories allowing my art to meet my spirit.












THE LAST OF US (interesting video of Gustavo discussing his life, and his composing for a video game THE LAST OF US):

READ THE ORIGINAL SHORT STORY: “Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx


So far, the news is more intrusive than the actual event—everyone in my Florida neighborhood is concerned about Irma, the biggest monster hurricane ever recorded. While writing this, I am still monitoring its menacing trek which has changed somewhat, but no one really knows where it will land and for how long.

It’s very much like waiting for an enemy attack in a unprovoked, unnecessary war.florida-2669193_1920

The fear is palpable, and heard in snatches of conversations while waiting in lines at the supermarket. There is no water in any of the stores I explored except for the expensive Italian seltzer ones which no one seems to be buying. Nor are there transistor radios, or flashlights or 6 volt batteries.

Gas pumps are empty, except for a few “regular” pumps. It’s as though people bought the highest quality gas for the extra unknown miles in search of a shelter of some sort somewhere.

The ones who are still here were passing me by in their pick-ups filled with the boards they will be putting on windows.

At the convenience store where I did find gas, the woman ahead of me in line bought several lotto tickets—very optimistic I thought. Then I made a mental list of all the practical cleaning things I will probably need next week when this nuisance leaves us devastated, wearied, and steals away our routines, comforts, schedules, security. Our daily mundane yet sanity-saving normalcies. Irma is a low thief as well as a murderer.


On my way home, I passed several women walking on the lonely sidewalks—they are singular, but seem to be the same type: older, shabbily dressed, and carrying tote bags or knapsacks, and large umbrellas. I wonder where they are going walking in this oppressive heat, where they will be when they won’t be able to walk outside in a few hours.

I’ve been bagging all my book manuscripts which I have to edit including my new novel. I may not have time or electricity to input anything for a while. Inside another large black plastic bag I slide other projects: a book I am translating for someone else, my unfinished essays, and other cobbled fictional pieces. For a macabre moment I think of body bags and how this would be my legacy if anyone finds these remainders sitting lumped, dejected, unfinished in my living room.

I laugh at the words “living room.”

When we are faced with huge cataclysmic phenomena that could strike us, we look for omens. I do anyway. It soothes my anxiety in the ways that a benevolent horoscope or I Ching reading will. So here’s a good omen: I found a cache of unused sterno cans I had forgotten about. Bad omen: I broke the glass chimney portion of my hurricane lamp while taking it down from a shelf. Good omen: caring neighbors with a back-up generator offering me a place if mine becomes unbearable. Bad omen: their phone doesn’t work.

Good omen: I bought the last 10 pound bag of ice.

No more bad omens, but a memory.key-west-81665_1920

The last devastating hurricane Central Florida experienced (and me along with it) was Charley in 2004. We were hit with a surprise wallop twice by the same damn hurricane, and the power was out for days. Of course, the weather turned hot and very steamy once it was truly over. I drove around my neighborhood, carefully avoiding all the orphaned roof tiles and downed trees and piles of wet trash until I saw a miracle truck. An ice company was giving out bags of ice for free.

I was so grateful I grabbed and tore the bag I was given, and applied fistfuls of the ice gems to my forehead, which ironically was the soothing poultice that broke through the numbness I had felt for what seemed like years and years.

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Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.


If you were a 19th century visitor to Vasylivka, the home estate where Nikolai Gogol was born in Velyky (Big) Sorochyntsi, Ukraine, you would be taken into the elegant dining room where his exuberant chatty mother, Maria is waiting for the samovar to steam. Even before she pours the tea, she is ready to tell you all about her life and of course, her genius son, “Nikosha.”

gogol-mollersm Rome 1840

Portrait of Nikolai Gogol, 1840, by F. Moeller

She would say: “I was 14 when I married my husband, Vasyl—Vasylivka our home is named after him. He first saw me in a dream, you know. He was standing before the iconostasis in church and the Tsarina walked through the gates holding a baby in her arms. She told him, ‘this is your wife.’  Seven months later, he was really at church, and saw an infant exactly as the one in the dream. It was me! I was that infant! We were destined for one another even though he was thirteen years older than me.”

2. Maria Ivanivna

Portrait of Maria Gogol (1781-1868)

Maria did marry the very romantic, sometimes melancholy, sometimes comedic Vasyl Gogol (Hohol), and brought his child bride to live at the home estate. She had several miscarriages, and before she was about to give birth to yet another baby, she went to the nearby church of St. Nicholas in the village of Dikanka, and prayed to the patron saint’s icon to spare her child. She also made a bargain with St. Nicholas—she would name her son after the saint if it was a boy, and build a chapel in Vasylivka.

Apparently the terms were to the Saint’s approval, because her child, Nikolai (Mykola) was born on March 31, 1809 (N.S). Maria kept her bargain, and sold the family silver for the money to build a chapel, and adorn the icon she prayed to with a golden frame. It’s still in the church in Dikanka although you won’t be allowed to photograph this wonder icon of Maria’s (and if you are a female, you will have to wear a babushka and skirt as I was made to—just a warning). But her icon is still there. Continue reading