Write by the Rails Blog Tour Post: Tamela Ritter

from these ashes

What Doesn’t Kill Us

Cindy wanted me to come here today and talk about how to use the pain and suffering you’ve experienced throughout your life without ripping your heart out with each word you write. I imagine there is a reason she wants this subject discussed, I’m just not sure she’s going to like the answer.

You can’t.

Or, if you can, you really shouldn’t.

There is an adage that has become a mantra to me when I sit down to write—whether it be things that are sad, things that are humorous or things that enrage me—“If you don’t cry writing it, they won’t cry reading it.” It has to hurt, for it has to be real. I don’t know how to make it real without bringing the pain. I wish I did.

But not really.

For there is a silver lining in all of this. Sometimes the only good that comes from the heartbreaks I’ve experienced—that we’ve experienced—is that it is great fodder for fiction. Okay, maybe it’s not exactly a silver lining… maybe a tin one?

There are, however, ways to make it a bit easier to use your pain and trauma:

Give it time. Oldest cliché in the world? “Time heals all wounds.” This is, of course, bullshit, but it does dull the pain, it does allow you to get perspective. You want your story to be universal, yeah? You want everyone to feel what the character feels. When you write things too close to the bone, they are still yours. This reminds me of another adage that always runs through my mind: “Just because it happened to you doesn’t make it interesting.”

I know that sounds harsh, but think about it. When you are new to heartbreak, when you are new to trauma, doesn’t writing feel like catharsis? That’s good. For your diary. For your memoir. Not so much for your fiction. There are certain things you will do with fiction when it’s too new. Believe me, I know, I’ve done them all. You will try and “fix it,” usually with overly simply solutions. Also, you will wallow. Without the mellow of time the pain is everything and you will not see the big picture, from there melodrama sets in.

The second thing that makes it easier is to use the pain not so much to tell one story, but to tighten and strengthen a muscle every writer needs: Empathy. It seems to me, to be a good writer, you need to have an understanding of the human condition. Sadly, the human condition is very often pain and suffering (and healing! We can’t forget the healing!).

And this is where we come to the last adage, the oldest adage in the writing handbook—“Write what you know.” I used to hate that saying. I didn’t want to write only the things that I knew, I wanted to write about people who lived in places I’ve never even visited, who had adventures I’d never have. But, in time, I realized that what that adage means is more precisely: Write what you know to be true. Write what you feel.

You do that, no matter how it hurts, and you will make your readers feel. You do that, you will help yourself heal, you might even help heal others.

Almost like it was worth it. Almost.

“If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.”
― Anaïs Nin


Tamela Ritter

Tamela Ritter

Tamela J. Ritter was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, her debut novel From These Ashes was published in March 2013 by Battered Suitcase Press. She now lives and works in Haymarket, Va. You can find her on Twitter or on Facebook.

Write by the Rails Blog Tour Guest Post: Katherine Gotthardt

Dear Readers,

It is such a pleasure to be here on Cindy’s blog!  Cindy is truly one of the most talented, inspiring women I’ve ever met.  Her enthusiasm for community service and creativity spills over wherever she goes, and it’s because of her that Write by the Rails has become so successful in encouraging other writers, including myself.  It’s hard to put yourself out there as a writer, no matter how seasoned you are or what genre you write.  Yet here I am, putting myself out there again by offering this selection from my novel, Approaching Felonias Park. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the creative process that brought the characters to life.  And thank you, Cindy, for being there through that process.

Wishing everyone blessings,

Katherine Gotthardt


Felonias Cover

So Jezabel got interested in looking at the woman’s polyester, paisley-print shirt. Orange and teal mega-print and orange pants. Purple boots. Big, sprayed hair and a lopsided smile. The woman was tall, and when she sat in the chair in front of Jezabel, she looked uncomfortable, like her big feet didn’t know where to put themselves. The woman fidgeted and finally handed over her paperwork to Jezabel who scanned it to make sure all the fields were filled in. The lady bounced her leg and peered through big lenses at Jezabel who read and pointed to a section on the form.

“So you are not working right now, is that correct?” Jezabel asked. She had learned to ask this question right off, without hesitation and without apology.

“That’s right,” said the woman.

“So how do you plan on paying this loan?” Jezabel asked, again, directly.

“I get some assistance and I do some work under the table,” the woman said, equally as directly.

Jezabel looked over the paper at the woman. “What kind of work do you do?” she asked.

“I fix fans.”

“Oh,” said Jezabel, and moved closer to her computer.

“Don’t you want to know anything else?” the redhead asked, staring seriously at Jezabel. “Like how many I can fix and why I haven’t fixed any in the last month and how I afford the parts and what I do?”

Jezabel shrugged. It wasn’t her business to ask for details about the lady’s business. She just wanted to know how the lady planned to pay the bill. The lady continued anyway.

“See, on trash day, I go through the neighborhoods. It’s the weirdest thing. You almost always see a fan in the trash. I’ve been doing this for ten years now and you want to know what is even weirder?” The lady bounced her leg faster, her face suddenly animated, the makeup cracking even more. “Every year, if I go back to houses that threw out a fan, they have another one at that same house. So you know what that means?”

Jezabel shrugged again, but this time found herself looking at the lady and wondering.

“It means the same people buy cheap fans every year. They use them for a season or two, and then they toss ‘em. That’s right. Just toss them out like junk!” The woman frowned like she couldn’t believe the injustice of it. “It’s like fans are disposable. But what these people don’t know is…..” Jezabel waited. The woman leaned in closer and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Fans can be restored.”

“I see,” said Jezabel, who turned back to her computer, mentally slapping herself for being taken in by the story, as if something exciting was going to come of it.

“So I collect all the fans, and I take some apart to replace the broken parts of the other ones. Then when people bring me their fans to fix, I have one to sell them or I have the part to replace theirs. Pretty nice, huh?”

“Yes, sounds like a good kind of business you’ve got going there,” Jezabel said flatly, entering the information into the computer.

“Yup. I get ten dollars usually for fixing a fan. It takes me less than an hour and all my parts are free. And I never have to buy tools because I have Daddy’s old tools and he had a lot of them.” The leg was really bouncing now. The lady was kicking the desk, distracting Jezabel, who wished the woman would just shut up.

“It will be just one more moment, Ma’am, and I will print up the agreement,” Jezabel said. “Do you have any questions on the loan?”

“Nope. I know I will have enough fans to fix in the next month or so because summer is right around the corner. I will get really busy and make lots of money, enough to pay the taxes on the house and this little loan back.”

“You understand the terms of the agreement and the way the interest works, right?” Jezabel asked again. She knew she didn’t have to, but she wanted to make sure the lady knew that even if she paid the loan back in a month, she would still owe the interest for longer than just the summer.

“I understand,” the woman said. “I just have to get through this month, is all. Running out of important things and I just haven’t had the money or the business, and the winter was so cold.”

Jezabel heard this a lot, especially when winters were harsh. A utility bill for even a small house could rise over $500 a month easily. Jezabel knew all about that because her apartment cost a couple of hundred to heat, and she always tried to keep the temperature at about 68 so she would have some “fun” money left over. Then, sometimes Michael would come through and give her some cash, or he would take them somewhere fun, so she would save that way, too.

Michael. Lately, whenever she thought of him, she had the same feeling she got when she looked at milkweeds in the fall, after all their fluff had gone to seed and started flying off. But she didn’t want to think about that right now. And she sure as heck didn’t want to be thinking about fans. She typed a little faster, hit the print button, and told the lady she would be right back.

In the lobby, Tonya picked up one phone line after another. Six or seven people sat in the plastic orange seats by the storefront window, and another three or four people vied for parking spaces out front. This was freaking ridiculous, Jezabel thought. She couldn’t process all these people by herself. Even if Charles were here, they would still have people waiting.

But she had Tonya. A pretty black lady from this neighborhood, Tonya knew how to handle herself and others. That’s why she was so good at her job. She wasn’t afraid of more than one person coming in at a time. She could handle the rude ones, the impatient ones and the sneaky ones. She got them through intake, and if she thought there was something really suspicious about a client (other than the usual working-under-the-table, which many of their clients had to do to survive), she would make reference to her fiancé who was a cop and how excited she was that he would be coming in any minute now to have a cup of coffee with her.

The truth was, Tonya had been divorced from her retail-district-manager-husband for three years, didn’t have a fiancé that was a cop or even a fiancé for that matter. Though she was well under thirty, Tonya said she was through with men. But she did legitimately know a couple of the cops from the station two doors down, and her tone was so convincing that no real, dangerous thug had ever called her bluff. It was amazing the way a truly shady character, after talking to Tonya, would suddenly get a cell phone call and have to come back at another time.

Tonya prided herself in this art of bluffing and subtle intimidation while still being polite, and she knew it was one reason Bobby and John would never want to think about losing her as an employee. Jezabel was sure Tonya got paid very well. And she was sure that anyone who got by Tonya was not a thug—with the possible exceptions of Bobby and John themselves.

It seemed to be getting worse every day. Each morning, shortly after the doors opened, potential clients filed in. The seats filled up fast, and often, it was standing room only, with a wide array of people from every country, represented in the microcosm that was the lobby of In-a-Pinch. And what they all had in common was a kind of poverty that relied on loans, these high interest loans supposed to provide a quick fix and a way out.

“Tonya, is Sharon coming in today?” Jezabel asked, though she knew wouldn’t like the answer either way.

She supposed it could be worse—Bobby and/or John could be coming in, but they wouldn’t be caught dead processing loans. That meant would be here to increase stress but not the line lengths.

 “Yes, ma’am,” Tonya replied.

Great, thought Jezabel as she grabbed her papers from the printers. Just great. Sharon-I’m-so-proud-to-be-working-in-the-financial-industry-Stuart.

Sharon wore a gray or navy blue suit every day, practical pumps and a pressed, white blouse. Jezabel couldn’t tell if Sharon belonged on an airplane serving ginger ale or in Washington, D.C. serving papers. Sharon spoke clearly, enunciating every word as if articulation were a job qualification in this zoo.

“What time is she in?” Jezabel asked.

“Nother hour,” Tonya answered. 

“Okay. Please, just tell people I am alone until then and to hang on. It might awhile. They can get some coffee or come back in a couple of hours if they don’t want to wait.”

“K,” Tonya said. “Whatever works for you,” Tonya said. “I’ll keep ‘em at bay.”

Jezabel knew she would.

Tonya was such a good person to work with, so strong and polite at the same time, rare qualities in this industry, in fact, in any industry. She half wished Tonya had another job. Tonya would could work anywhere and make good money. She didn’t have to rely on Bobby and John. She could go out and do something meaningful.

Jezabel wished she were in the same position.

Back in her office, Jezabel saw the red-haired, fan-fixing lady cleaning her globular glasses and pacing. “Okay, I just need a couple of signatures,” Jezabel said sitting down at her desk. She was thinking about Michael and the park again. Stop it, she scolded herself. Focus.

The lady sat back down. “You know, your office is kind of stuffy,” the lady said, taking a pen out of the penholder on Jezabel’s desk. “You could use a fan in here. You can…”

Jezabel pointed to the places that required signatures. “Sign here and here,” she interrupted. “Then I sign as a witness, and I can get you a copy for your records.”

“So what do you think?” the lady asked. “About the fan, I mean.”

This lady is relentless, Jezabel thought, but she was used to clients trying to sell her things. After all, that’s what a good sales person did, and it put Jezabel a little at ease thinking the lady was ambitious and assertive.

“I think the owners won’t approve the expenditure,” Jezabel said.

“Well what about for your house? You have a house, right? You need a fan for your house? I can get you a fan for your house.”

“Um…I’m all set. But thanks anyway,” Jezabel said. Her voice was flatter than she meant it to be, but she needed to discourage the lady and still be gentle about it. Not that Sharon was gentle. Sharon was a stucco wall trying to pass herself off as 1970’s velvet wallpaper.  

“Well, if you ever need a fan, you know how to get in touch with me,” said the lady. “Just call me. I can sell you a good fan, a really good fan, or I can fix one that broke or I can….”

Jezabel got up to make copies. “Excuse me,” she said, going back to the lobby.

A trip to the copy machine was always an excellent escape. When she returned to her office, the woman was pacing again. Jezabel handed her the copies, shook her clammy hand and told her to have a nice day.

The woman smiled briefly and said, “Okay. Call me about that fan.”

“I will,” said Jezabel. And the woman walked out of her office, breaking into a tuneless whistle as if life had just given her something wonderful to look forward to. Jezabel wondered if fans made the woman happy. Was the woman happier than she was?


Katherine Gotthardt

Katherine Gotthardt

Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt is a poetry and prose writer residing in Western Prince William County, VA, where she enjoys exploring history, art, culture and nature. An advocate for preservation, conservation, education and civic engagement, Katherine volunteers for several non-profit organizations. A former community writer for the regional News & Messenger newspaper, Katherine has taught college English composition online and English as a Second Language (ESOL) at an adult detention center. She currently freelances and does outreach for Rainbow Therapeutic Riding Center, a non-profit providing therapeutic equine services to those with disabilities.

Katherine’s poetry and prose have appeared in various online and text journals. Poems from the Battlefield, a collection of her Civil War themed poetry, original and archival photos and period quotes, was published in 2009. Katherine’s children’s book, Furbily-Furld Takes on the World, was published in 2010. Approaching Felonias Park, a novel focusing on predatory lending, was released in November, 2011. Weaker Than Water, a second collection of Katherine’s poetry, came out in April, 2013.

In addition to founding Writers for a Cause, Katherine is an active member of the Prince William County Arts Council, Write by the Rails and the League of Women Voters, Prince William Area.

Katherine’s resume can be found on LinkedIn. She is available for speaking engagements and workshops. Email katherine.gotthardt@gmail.com for information.

photo courtesy of Chip Deyerle

Write by the Rails Blog Tour Guest Post: Dan Verner

Cindy Brookshire, Woman of the Year 2010, Greater Manassas Christmas Parade

Cindy Brookshire, Woman of the Year 2010, Greater Manassas Christmas Parade


Women of the Year

I am privileged to have a number of terrific women in my life, not the least of whom are my daughters, Amy and Alyssa and my wife of 40 years, Becky.

I also hold a position unique in the area in that I have a relationship with two former Women of the Year. Becky held the position, an honor bestowed by the Manassas Christmas Parade, in 2007, and my writer friend and local writing group Write by the Rails President Cindy Brookshire, garnered that honor in 2010. The award is given each year to a woman who had made significant contributions to the community. Cindy and Becky are alike in that they are quite good at what they do and anyone Cindy doesn’t know in town, Becky does.

Becky rode on the back seat of a beautiful red 1964 Chevrolet Impala convertible. My job was to ride shotgun and not distract from the proceedings, which I managed to pull off.

Cindy told me later that she had imagined someone in one of the houses lining the parade route looking out and being impressed by the Woman of the Year. It turns out that Becky grew up in one of the houses on the parade route, and she had done exactly what Cindy had imagined! Cindy turned her musings into a vignette capturing the experience. Art met life.

I consider myself most blessed to know these two community leaders. Long may they prosper!

# # #

dan verner
Dan Verner recently published On Wings of the Morning, a novel about a Wisconsin farm boy
who becomes a B-17 pilot in World War II. Dan also maintains three blogs–Biscuit
City (
http://ltdanverner.com/), Beyond the Blue Horizon (http://huckfinn47.wordpress.com/) and Preaching to the Choir (http://choirdevotionals.com/). He serves as vice-president of Write by the Rails, the Prince William Chapter of the Virginia Writers Club. To visit Dan on the Write by the Rails Endless Possibilities Blog Tour, go to http://huckfinn47.wordpress.com/. For more information about Write by the Rails, go to www.writebytherails.org.

Write By the Rails Endless Possibilities Blog Tour 2014!

Endless Possibilities Blog Tour
Wow – I was a newbie to WordPress 3 weeks ago and already I’ve hitchhiked onto a 16-member blog tour like a hobo latching onto a fast-moving freight train. Look out!

Write by the Rails – the Prince William Chapter of the Virginia Writers Club:

Endless Blog Tour 2014: 16 members of Write By the Rails are participating in the 2014 blog tour which will run for the next 8 weeks!

List of Participants & Their Blogs/Websites:

1. Stacia Kelly- http://staciakelly.com/
2. Nick Kelly- http://www.nickkelly.com/
3. Tamela J. Ritter- http://tamelajritter.com/
4. Katherine Gotthardt- http://www.tenaciouspoodle.com/
5. Dan Verner- http://huckfinn47.wordpress.com/
6. ME  Cindy Brookshire- https://cookies4nataka.wordpress.com/
7. Patricia Daly-Lipe- http://www.literarylady.com/
8. Jan Rayl- http://write4jan.wordpress.com/
9. Kristy Feltenberger Gillespie http://kristyfgillespie.com/
10. Angela Bryce- http://ladyinbalance.com/blog/
11. Shay Seaborne- http://www.synergyfield.com/
12. Mary Rosenthol- http://othersideofthenotebook.blogspot.com/
13. Nancy S. Kyme- http://campfirememories.wordpress.com/
14. Linda S. Johnston- http://www.lindasjohnston.com/blog.htm?post=942366
15. Tee Morris- http://www.ministryofpeculiaroccurrences.com/
16. Phillippa Ballantine- http://www.ministryofpeculiaroccurrences.com/

Look for exciting posts from each of these visitors on my blog!

The last place.

a recent trip to the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond

a recent trip to the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond

All my life I’ve made plans, scrapped plans, re-engineered plans, tackled plans, accomplished plans, taken on new plans, made lists, checked off lists, taped new lists over old lists. Get an education. Get a job. Fall in love. Get married. Have children. Wash diapers. Get a new job. Bake bread. Bury a husband. Marry again. Raise a family. Go down a zipwire. Grow in faith. See the mountain top. Walk the ridge walk. It’s been a wild adventure, really. In May, our youngest will graduate college. The patchwork-lifework I stretched like a clothesline for more than five decades is fini.

What’s next?

Retirement was never part of my plans. I’m a writer. I’ll never stop writing until they pry the pen from my cold, ink-stained fingers (or slam the lid of my laptop on them). Even if I flat line in the creativity department, I still envision working in a creative community and the stories they tell – at a visitor’s center? A used bookstore? A shelter? Somewhere.

The railroad might send my husband to another location. At times, he wonders if God will call him to a third career [#1 was the Army]. Or we might just be here forever. In any case, I’ll still write.

It’s just …I’ve begun to think of “the last place.” You know. Where I will be when my life ends. My mother was 78 when she died; my grandmother was 64 – that’s just five years older than I am now. They both began and ended their lives in Nebraska.

I’m feeling my mortality. It’s a pity party set to “A Little Night Music”:

Every day a little death

In the parlor, in the bed

In the curtains, in the silver

In the buttons, in the bread


So I need to do something to snap out of it. This morning, now that the polar vortex and the rains have moved on, I walked the long walk in the neighborhood with the dog, picking up trash. This afternoon, after I meet my deadlines, I’ll bake two loaves of honey wheat bread to take to Manassas Midwifery. There’s new life coming into this world, and someone needs to feed the laboring mothers. It’s their turn to make plans, wash diapers, and begin the wild adventure.

Stand in the place where you live

I live in a growing city. It is important to be informed, to participate and to vote.

ice skating at the harris pavilion by robin kruczek 2004

ice skating at the harris pavilion by robin kruczek 2004

I watch City Council meetings on cable TV or on the city website. I help at the registrar’s office and during elections. I attend town hall meetings when I can. I attended one in December, and saw my legislators before they left for Richmond. I even wrote about it, because one of the citizens who spoke, Illana Naylor, brought up the importance of addressing climate change policy on a state level, a subject I had just been studying through the Lifelong Learning Institute-Manassas:  http://princewilliamliving.com/2014/01/lli-offers-climate-change-myth-reality/

Now that the 2014 Virginia General Assembly has opened, I can track bills and watch live streaming floor sessions here: http://virginiageneralassembly.gov – and this Saturday, Jan. 11 at noon,  I can even watch the inauguration of the governor when it is shown live on the website.

A few years ago I discovered www.richmondsunlight.com. I like it because it is easy to navigate, and neutral.

I like the League of Women Voters of Virginia website, too, at www.lwv-va.org, though some would argue they aren’t neutral because they take positions and lobby for those positions. You be the judge.

And of course I like the State Board of Elections at www.sbe.virginia.gov because the website answers questions about registering to vote and upcoming elections.

So that’s my local life. What’s yours?

Fight or flight.


No surprise, one of my new year’s resolutions is to lose weight.

Surprise, I have a record of success.

Last year I lost 70 pounds with personal trainer Nina Lomax (www.Body-Conscience.com and www.fithealthylady.com). I lost another three pounds over the holidays, on my own. I feel great.

Now I need to lose 67 more. So I’ve been making the rounds, testing out exercise facilities in the City of Manassas.

The first place I tried was in a medical complex. It had low lighting, a friendly older clientele; TV monitors set to Fox News. On the circuit machines, I tapped computer displays and listened to beeps like a lab rat hitting my mark. I had the free weights in the weight room to myself. It was like a comfortable shoe. Every time I went, I ran into someone I knew.

The second place was in a busy shopping center. It was brightly lit, welcoming, with a coffee & smoothie bar and female clientele ranging from young to elderly; energetic music and two classes — exercise and weight training – going on. While I did cardio, I talked to a female recruiter for the state police, and a writer. Staff helped me adjust the machines – no computer displays – and I did free weights on my own. It felt girly. No high pressure sales tactics.

The third place was a 24-hour facility with a parking lot packed with more than its share of little red sports cars and globs of spit on the pavement. I got “the look” from more than one athletic guy, and I hadn’t even walked in yet. Inside the glass doors it was all loud rhythms, flat screen TVs and clanking weights, and a motion mash up of legs and arms moving on conveyors and cycles, framed by racks and stacks of skimpy workout shirts and muscle magazines. The fight or flight reflex kicked in. I could taste metal in my mouth.

With determination, I put one step in front of the other. I signed in, changed clothes, worked out. I enjoyed the adrenalin high to the elliptical at 12:05 and Katy Perry’s “Roar.” I just couldn’t overcome my intimidation of the free weight room, a cathedral of glass, iron and testosterone – not me, wandering in, looking for itty-bitty 8-lb weights to do some flies. I walked up the stairs. I thought I was going to die. I had to stop and rest. I went home on wobbly legs. The pass is for 12 days. We’ll see. I know several women who thrive at this gym – one even teaches classes at a similar outlet. And they’ve told me, “the look” is in MY head. No one cares what I look like or what I do when I’m there. Just do it.

Whatever my decision, I will keep checking in with Nina Lomax and I definitely recommend her to anyone. She gave me my record of success. I’m going for the next 67 pounds. Surprise.