New Book Releases a Writer’s Creativity

What's the StoryNote: Dan Haggerty is a senior at Westfield State University who is interning with my business, Beetle Press, this semester.


By Dan Haggerty


Finally, a solution to writer’s block.

Author John Sheirer’s new book, What’s the Story? is designed to inspire creative writers and help them overcome the dreaded block.

What’s the Story? features 50 photographs and 1,000 ideas to help writers create and revise material. Each page in the book starts with an inspiring picture meant to jog a creative mind, followed by a series of background questions a writer can ask his or herself like “Where is this being taken?” “What are the names of the characters in the photo?” “Why are they there?” This allows writers to open their minds to new settings and characters.

These initial questions are warm-up exercises of sorts for the writing prompts connected to each photo, in which writers are asked simply, “What’s the Story?” This is where John gives us license to fully imagine.

I have been writing fiction seriously for three years now. And I can tell you from experience that there is nothing more frustrating than staring blankly at a computer screen or notebook waiting for inspiration to strike only to be stuck in place for hours on end with nothing to show for the time you have spent.

This maddening feeling is exactly why I think John’s book is so important. What’s the Story? acts as a detour for a writer. When there is a roadblock on the path to creation, I find it comforting that John has outlined an alternate route for writers to continue their journey.

For fun, I gave John’s system a try to see just how much I could really get out of What’s the Story? I chose a picture of a shirtless man ON A BIKE? in mid-air wearing sunglasses and who had earbuds in. Behind the man was a cliff, some trees, and in the far-off distance you could almost make out the image of a large house.

The first background question that John prompted was to give the mid-air man a name. He looks like a Travis to me. Another question: “What season of the year is it?” Summer was a nice fit I decided. “Why isn’t he wearing a shirt?” My first thought was that it was to impress a girl. What more noble a reason could there be to be a shirtless, cliff-jumping daredevil? The last question John asked was “What song is he listening to with his earbuds?” It had to be “Leaving the Nest (It’s a Long Way Down)”. Nothing else felt quite right.

Then I moved on to the What’s the Story? section of the system. I chose the prompt of writing Travis’ interior monologue as he prepares for his leap. The first line is always the toughest to come up with. I struggled with it for a few minutes, typing, deleting, typing, deleting. I looked at John’s suggested first lines and the very first one stuck out to me. “I wonder if she’s looking at me.” It was perfect. Just like that, I was on my way to a comedic short story about a young man named Travis who was trying to impress his crush with a cliff-jumping stunt.

John is a writing professor at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut. His many writing works include memoirs such as Growing up Mostly Normal in the Middle of Nowhere and Loop Year: 365 Days on the Trail, a short story collection titled One Bite: Stories for Short Attention Spans, Stolen Moments, and Busy Lives, a collection of essays on current events, Tales of a Real American Liberal, and a collection of photos and life-lessons he learned with the help of his dog, Libby Speaks: The Wit and Wisdom of the World’s Wisest Dog. John also writes regularly for The Daily Hampshire Gazette as a columnist on politics and current events.

John’s short stories, poems, essays, and photographs have appeared in hundreds of print and online publications. He lives in Northampton with his wife Betsy and their dog Libby.

Writers of all levels have dealt with writer’s block. I know I have. Thanks to John, writer’s block may be a thing of the past.

Labor of Love

Bobby on way to Vietnam  My business colleague, Judith Kelliher – or Judy to me – is in the midst of a creative project that has me terribly excited on her behalf.

About six months ago, after reading Unbroken, the nonfiction World War II survival story of Olympian Louis Zemperini, whose Air Force plane crashed in the Pacific, Judy realized she knew very little about her brother Bobby’s service in Vietnam. She got the idea to interview him and write something, the scope of which she knows not.

I met Judy back in 1985. We were both newbie journalists at the Springfield Morning Union, which evolved into what we now know as the Springfield Republican. Judy was an obit writer who did occasional sports writing as well. I was an intern in the Living department, typing up weddings and engagements, getting the opportunity here and there to write a feature story and gain a byline.

We eventually became great friends and professional journalists, working in the trade for over 10 years, Judy covering Amherst and later the legal system in Hampshire County. Now Judy works with me in my business, Beetle Press. She does a good deal of the client copy writing.

She is a solid interviewer, and she spins a good story.

So, I was excited, when, back in January, she began to interview Bobby on Saturday mornings about his time in Vietnam. (Bobby is pictured at the top of this post, on his way to his second tour in Vietnam in May 1970.) They have delved into the horrors he experienced, into the emotional wounds that still pain him and affect his life today.

The deal in the beginning was that Bobby would offer his time in exchange for pastry, so the first day, Judy and Bobby had danish together before diving in to the interview. But then the work got serious, more focused, and there was no room for baked goods.

Bobby has now walked Judy through his entry into the military and details on his two tours of service in the U.S. Army, stationed in Vietnam. He has told stories that made them both cry together—a box of Kleenex was always nearby—and, as is more characteristic of Bobby, he has also made Judy laugh.

Judy is now in the process of transcribing her many hours of recordings into notes that she will review with Bobby with a goal of filling in gaps. (She didn’t want to interrupt him with follow-up questions in the initial interviews, especially when the memories turned deep and often painful.)

Once the second round of interviews is complete, Judy will painstakingly turn them into a written product, word by word. All the planning is what occupies many of her Saturday mornings now, in addition to her research on Vietnam and that unpopular war in general.

Recently, Judy covered an assignment for The Republican, for whom she still writes often. She was able to take photos for the paper and be present when a woman whose brother was killed in the Vietnam War received letters that he had written to a friend in East Longmeadow. The letters were found among the personal effects of the friend who had died last year. Thanks to the efforts of the chairman of the East Longmeadow Historical Commission, the two handwritten letters on Army-issue stationery were returned to the sister.

Judy has much material to work with, and soon, it will begin to shape itself as she begins telling the tale, starting with Bobby in high school. She does know that that’s where the story begins.

What she doesn’t know is how long the story will be or what kind of audience it might have. She will write it first. It may be memoir length, or perhaps shorter. It may be something Bobby will want to publish and sell, or it may be a piece that is solely for Bobby, or Bobby and his family.

Judy is letting Bobby decide the book’s eventual shape and fate. She is giving him this gift of his own story. That’s the kind of person she is. A compassionate giver.

I absolutely cannot wait to read Judy’s work. I know and love Bobby and want to know him in more depth and understand that part of his life, and I want to see Judy succeed in this major creative endeavor.

Judy has always been at the top in terms of my support systems, and I look forward to encouraging her, helping her edit and shape and prodding her when she needs that.

I am fired up to give to the giver.

I am confident she will deliver a compelling work that will well satisfy whichever audience Bobby chooses.

Book Group Part 3

Note: This is the third of three parts. Scroll down to the June 10 entry to read the first post and to July 2 for the second.

We set the writing retreat date for June 5, and we stuck to it even though Giselle and Gina couldn’t be with us.

I was on a deadline for several client projects that day, and fearing that our writing retreat might not actually involve quiet writing time, I decided to work at home until the early afternoon on projects, and then I headed to West Chesterfield, determined to give myself at least a few hours to work on Seeking the Sun, whether my friends were writing or not.

I arrived at Stevie’s cozy, relaxing cabin on the river, with its adjacent tree farm and vegetable gardens, about 2 p.m. I was so pleased there was no cell service or wifi. It felt like a mini-vacation from life’s fast pace, driven by technology and deadlines.

The gals were gathered around the dining table, eating from an assortment of goodies that included olives, goat and cheddar cheeses, gluten-free crackers and the platter loaded with sliced turkey; Stevie had roasted a turkey for us for the occasion.

Only Kina Luna was writing, hard at work and quiet on the sofa in the corner. We chatted. We ate.
“Have you guys actually been writing?” I asked. Indeed they had, and around 2:30, we all found a corner to write in, and the home got uncharacteristically quiet.

Kina Luna was plugging through a work project that was creative in nature. Stevie, Mariesh and Claire were writing undisclosed works, and Joni – who is more of an artist than a writer – changed her clothes and declared she was going to paint.

Kina Luna and I inhabited the living room, lost in our own thoughts. Mariesh went outside to a creative hut nestled on the shore of the river (called a Swedish “hytta,” Mariesh mistook it for a hot tub).

Stevie, Claire and Joni headed into the den. There was some chatter from that room as Joni talked about her blank canvas.

We all had blank canvases.

I realized right away that my mind wasn’t ready to just start writing. I had been away from the manuscript for over a month, and it seemed unfamiliar to me. It felt unorganized to just start writing. Instead, I started reading from the beginning, making subtle – and not so subtle – edits, and familiarizing myself with my characters and plot.

At turns, I had the thought that it was quite good; then I would hit a section that wasn’t well developed, and I’d rail over my difficulties as a fiction author. “Why can’t I just make things up??” I asked myself.

I got only about half way through the draft – to about page 30 of the still 62 pages – and it was already 5 p.m. My friends finished the pieces they were working on, and everyone began to mill about in the living room, talking about what activity was next.

I ignored them for a time, continuing to read, but then the joy of simply being with them and joining them on a country walk became too appealing to tune out.

Changing into my hiking boots, I caught a glimpse of Joni’s painting, which I had heard the others remarking on. It was absolutely beautiful. A stunning landscape of a pond with evergreens and big poofy clouds hanging over the water. It was a work you would buy in a shop.

Then we walked for over an hour—without Kina Luna, who continued to work – and we talked endlessly and had an adventure that could also find itself in my book. A disgruntled resident took offense to the fact that we were walking five across on the dirt road that led us from Chesterfield to Cummington – until we noticed her vehicle and moved over single file to the right side.

It is, in fact, not an exaggeration to say she accosted us. She even videotaped us in her fury. She left us alone when we let her know we were jotting down her license plate number.

We laughed about that incident all night. We called the lady The Lady for lack of a more clever nickname.

Back at Stevie’s, we drank wine, played a card game, ate some dinner. We talked about how I would write this blog series, and they brainstormed their “true names.” And when it got late, we wondered aloud if anyone wanted to read what they had written. Since my friends had so eagerly served as guinea pig readers for Divine Renovations, I did not offer to read from my book.

Mariesh reluctantly read what she had written that afternoon. It was a chapter from a book she has long had in mind to write and has been writing in sections.

She read it beautifully, and it was flawless in its pacing and strong detail and character development. We were all impressed and encouraged Mariesh to keep up with the writing of this book.

We all decided to spend the night at Stevie’s, and we talked – and laughed uproariously – late into the night. We are now planning our next retreat because, as it turns out, the women who don’t read together can write together.

Book Group Part 2

Note: This is the second of three parts. Scroll down to the June 10 entry to read the first post.

So, I’ve established that my friends from my book group don’t really read or discuss books, but they are funny.

And now I’m going to tell you how they are also inspiring.

Even though we don’t have articulate book discussions and debates, we are still a literate bunch, and we have amazing conversations with depth. Mariesh inspires all of us with her stories of trips abroad with her sisters, for instance, and Stevie and Mariesh energize us with their dedication to their work.
Recently, without knowing it, Gina also gave me a jolt of inspiration.

I’ve been struggling to find the time to work on my second book, Seeking the Sun, and I’ve also hit a wall in terms of where the story is going and what will become of Roxie and Alex. This block is another symptom of my fiction versus nonfiction dilemma as I struggle to pull the story from my heart and mind as opposed to my journalist’s notebook.

Gina and her kale helped unplug one small piece of the puzzle.

At a gathering in my living room, complete with Kina Luna’s popcorn, Gina was talking about how she uses up the kale from her farm share so that it doesn’t take over her kitchen or go bad before she and her family can consume it.

“I break it up in pieces like this,” she said, demonstrating the act of tearing the kale into small pieces. “And then I freeze it.”

Suddenly I knew that Roxie has a small garden plot at her studio, and she, too, shreds and freezes her kale so as to not become overwhelmed by the sheer volume. I knew that the nice couple that rents the art studio to Roxie also lets her take charge of a plot of land on their property to plant lettuce, kale, cucumbers, tomatoes and basil. Perhaps, it occurred to me, Roxie is even a vegetarian. Maybe she ferments her food. Maybe she cans it.

I couldn’t wait to get writing again and begin to work on this aspect of Roxie.

But there was an even bigger inspiration – and an opportunity – that came via my dear book group.
For April, which is National Poetry Month, my friends and I decided we wouldn’t choose a book (that we wouldn’t then read) but we would each come with a favorite poem, and we would read them out loud to one another.

We each read various selections. Stevie and Mariesh ’s works were classics, all read from their bound collections of poetry. Kina Luna read hers from her iPhone.

Reading her first poetic selection, Claire seemed a bit nervous. Hers was a beautiful piece about being on the back of a motorcycle, watching the landscape pass, feeling the fresh air, feeling alive.

“That was lovely,” we all said in unison. “Who wrote that?”

Very quietly, Claire said, “I did.”

After we heaped praise on Claire, we launched a conversation about writing and who loved to write and what we loved to write and that we never have writing time.

“We should have a writing retreat,” someone suggested. We were all over that idea.

Stevie offered up her vacation home in West Chesterfield and offered to do a Doodle poll so that we could choose a date. We said we would each come with a writing exercise, and we talked about a group writing project as well, although this concept had no shape to it.

We left one another that night with a higher energy level than usual. Soon, we would gather to write together.

Question was, would we write together as well as we discussed books?

Celebrating Fathers

Celebrating Fathers

Mares eat oats, and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy. A kid’ll eat ivy, too. Wouldn’t you?

This is a little ditty that can easily get stuck in my head when I call it to mind, but not because the lyrics are compelling or because the song was popular.

It’s because when I was a little girl, my dad used to sing it to me as a goodnight song while perched on the edge of my bed. There was nothing sweeter or more soothing than lying there in my tiny room with my dad crooning this silly song to me. It made me giggle.

There are other songs I can call to mind that also remind me of my dad, and they are all barbershop songs, like “Sweet Adeline,” “Hey, Look Me Over” and “Danny Boy.”

For as long as I can remember, my dad has loved to sing, and he has been a barbershop singer since before I was born 50 years ago.

Harvey Beetle sang in a barbershop chorus and in many iterations of quartets in eastern Mass, where I grew up, and since he retired in the 1980s, he’s been singing with the Lakes Region Chordsmen in Laconia, N.H., which recently honored him for 50 years of service as a chorus member.

At 86, my dad also still sings several times a week with a group of fellas in a quartet called Rewind.

Barbershop music is sung a capella in four parts – lead, tenor, bass and baritone. My dad sings baritone, which is the hardest part to sing as it doesn’t really follow any kind of melody line.

Listening to him practice was always amusing. I’d hear the familiar sound of his pitch pipe – which he’d let me blow for fun – and then the unusual sound of a familiar song being sung in one part only. It was one of the sounds of home.

My dad performs in nursing homes, at fairs and festivals, in annual recitals and in contests and competitions. He travels to sing. He stays out late at night to sing. He knocks on doors with his quartet on Valentine’s Days to sing love songs to unsuspecting listeners.

My dad lives to sing, and in doing so, he’s successfully modeled what it means to live into a passion and commit to it unconditionally.

I’ve followed my dad’s music career with interest and support. I was in the audience for many a concert as a young child, and as a young adult and mother, I would attend my dad’s outdoor concerts at Weirs Beach on Lake Winnipesaukee whenever I was visiting my parents in the summertime. My daughters loved watching their Grampy sing as much as me.

We were also apt to crack up while watching as well. This because my father lives into his music with his whole heart – and his whole face. When he is singing, his face is big and bright, and his rather bushy black eyebrows are excessively expressive, moving theatrically up and down.

Once, as a teen, I got to laughing so hard watching my dad sing with his quartet in our living room that I had to run out and get a grip on myself.

“What was so funny?” my dad asked me later, in his most innocent way. The question only brought on another wave of laughter.

My late husband, Ed Godleski, was a musician himself, and he was a great supporter of my dad’s interest. One Christmas, Ed gave my dad and his Rewind colleagues a gift certificate to a recording studio in New Hampshire.

They spent the day there – and Ed and my mom and I did as well – singing their repertoire of songs and recording them. The result was a CD my dad can still play. It’s a great reminder of his lifelong dedication.

My dad’s passion for barbershop singing is truly something to be admired.

Just like my dad.

Happy Father’s day to a wonderful, kind and giving role model. I love you.

A Whole Lot More Than Books

The women in my book group are not women with whom I read and discuss books. In fact, we rarely discuss the fiction and nonfiction we read – or some of us read – because we are too busy talking about real life. We talk about our own busy, crazy, wonderful lives.

I count these women among the best of my friends, and once a month, we laugh from the time they start filtering into my house at 7 p.m. until they leave around 10 p.m. It gets loud in here. My housemate Craig has to take refuge in the basement. Often, as he heads down there, he is rolling his eyes, and I know later he will ask me, “What was SO funny?”

Maybe none of it would be funny to him, but it is all funny to us. Even getting this blog out was a hoot as my friends delighted in choosing alternate names for themselves.

They come with their arms loaded with wine, gluten-free crackers, humus and my personal favorite, Kina Luna’s popcorn with its special yummy topping with brewer’s yeast in it. They come yearning to catch up and relax and, for at least this one night a month, take care of themselves.

I have known many of these women for almost 30 years, and some I met only a few years ago, but that doesn’t matter. We are a connected unit. Together, they helped me through the losses of Ed and my full-time job in 2010. And together, they continue to lift my spirits.

They tell the truths of life, and they laugh at the absurdities because – what else are you going to do?

Stevie is one of the main caregivers in the group. She has spent much of the past 10 years lovingly, selflessly caring for her three children, an older aunt and uncle, and her parents. This, on top of her full-time job.

Only recently, Stevie has been able to start thinking about herself, and it’s a beautiful thing to see her noticing that it’s time people checked in with her about what she wants. This concept became clear to her last month, after her son cut down a mature evergreen bush in her yard because her daughter didn’t like it.

“Wasn’t that sweet of Eric, Mom?” her daughter asked her.

“Sweet?” Stevie said to us, recounting the George Washington-like story. She is full of that adrenalin you get when your kids enrage you, and you know they can’t un-commit their offense – or put the bush’s limbs back – so you laugh.

“Hello?” she shrieks to us, venting the anger that’s still there and for which we provide an outlet. “That was my bush, in my yard. Maybe I didn’t like it either, but no one asked me.”

It is so funny because all of our children are oblivious.

Joni is always sure to crack us up, too, over her own absurdities. She is animated and energetic and full of what my mother would call “piss and vinegar.”

Last month’s antics found Joni taking her first bike ride of the year. While heading off, she noticed a crack of sorts in her rear tire, but she didn’t take the time to carefully examine it. Then, while riding in downtown Northampton, she started to think about what could happen if that tire suddenly blew on her.

“You could get hurt like that,” she said.

So she decided she would check on the tire. But she completed her safety check while continuing to ride her bike.

Joni is comical demonstrating what it looked like when she stood up on her bike and rode while peering through her legs to examine the rear tire. Her glasses are obscured by her thick, wavy hair, so of course, she didn’t happen to notice that ahead of her was a parking meter, and she slammed right into it.


Joni is all woman. Her first thought was not to assess whether she was wounded. It was to look around and figure out “Did anyone see that?” so as to uncover how badly she had damaged her ego.

Ah, the irony of an injury caused in an effort to prevent injury.

My friends also inspire me, but that’s a longer story, and you’ll have to wait until next week to read about it.

Promotion from the Heart

Promotion from the Heart

This week’s blog was written by Alaina Leary, a senior at Westfield State University who assists Janice in PR and communications work with Beetle Press.


The American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life is one cause that I strongly support. A few of my family members have had cancer, and several of my friends’ lives have been really affected by cancer in some way. For that reason, I’ve been enjoying assisting Janice with the Hampshire County Relay’s publicity this year.

One pre-event that resonated with me was the kick-off breakfast in February. During the breakfast, the tri-chairs for this year’s Relay were honored on stage, and it was amazing to see the many ways that they contributed to making the event possible.

There are too many reasons to list why Tom McCusker, 45, of Florence participates in the Relay For Life of Hampshire County.

McCusker has been a part of Relay since the third annual Hampshire County event and has been a tri-chair once before. He has been an active member of the planning team since 2001.

His inspiration comes mainly from knowing a family member with cancer. His sister-in-law, Donna, was diagnosed in late March of 2001 with stage 4 colorectal cancer.

Donna passed away shortly after her battle with cancer began, but she had heard about the Relay For Life and asked the family to make two promises: one, to take her to the event; and two, to start a family team after her passing. That team is now called Donna’s Darlins’.

Tom also walks for his father, who lost his battle with cancer as well, but he says that Donna was the reason he started to Relay.

Along with Tom, Wendy Payson, 45, of Southampton and Kurt LaPlante, 20, of Chicopee are also serving as tri-chairs this year.

The tri-chairs are incredibly motivated and passionate about helping the American Cancer Society raise awareness and dollars. They spend hundreds of hours together in a Relay season. They gather sponsors, oversee fundraisers, help to register teams and volunteers and plan the hundreds of details of the 24-hour event.

Wendy has been Relaying since the event came to Hampshire County in 1998; this is her third year as a tri-chair, and she has been on the planning committee for 10 years.

This year, Hampshire County is making the theme of the Relay “over-the-top circus.” The activities and events will be planned around this theme. The survivors’ tent at the event will be a Big Top-style tent, and teams are encouraged to host on-site carnival games as fundraisers.

Wendy says about the theme, “We feel it’s something people will really latch onto and have fun with.”

Tom hopes that the Relay this year will motivate people the way he has been motivated. One in three people will be diagnosed with a form of cancer this year, and this is part of what pushes him to do more, as well as Donna’s impact on his life.

The three tri-chairs hope to use events such as the kick-off breakfast and the innovative theme in February to “get the audience pumped to save more lives,” according to Kurt.

Almost all who participate in Relay share that sentiment. “I want to see an end to this dreadful disease,” says Kurt.

Tom adds, “Come to Relay to experience what we all know. We all need to fight to make it happen.”

Wendy agrees completely. “When I walk around the track in the middle of the night, it’s my chance to reflect on the lives lost to cancer, the many people struggling with the disease in this very moment and the incredible number of people around the track who have come out to make a difference. Together, we will find a cure. And I will be Relaying until that cure is found,” she says.

That inspires me to get walking for next year’s Relay.

To volunteer for Relay or to learn more about it, email or visit