essay writing

Gearing Up for Oscar 2

The 2018 Oscar nominations are out!

When I was teaching, this was the time of year in my film class when we kicked into high gear, taped ballots to the wall, kept track of our viewing in real time and applied all the things we had been learning in class to real-life, for-better-or-worse, up-to-the-minute, history-making movies. We considered plot and character, of course, but those discussions were often eclipsed by our attention to camera placement, editing techniques, production design, directorial idiosyncrasies and the effectiveness of the soundtrack. My students often complained that they couldn’t just “sit down and watch a movie” anymore and that their friends were getting sick of their constant commentary on a director’s use of tight close-ups or Dutch angles or parallel editing. I couldn’t have been more pleased.

It was all very energizing, this ushering high school kids through Oscar season. There was an urgency to it—new day, new lesson plan—and I was all in. I would see as many of the nominated films as I could so that I would be able to make educated comparisons and connections and predictions and fill in the gaps for the kids whose lives couldn’t accommodate going to the movies four times in one weekend. Not that mine could, either, but I saw it as my calling.

I took Oscar season very, very seriously.

When I retired from teaching, my enthusiasm for Oscar Quest waned. Getting to the theater became less of a priority. Too cold. Too late. Too expensive. Too crowded. Too much crinkling. So dark. Must feed the cats, read those emails, finish crocheting that doily. I’ll wait for nominees to show up on On Demand. Or Netflix. Or STARZ.

Or not.

It’s so easy to let yourself go.

So, this year, I’m going to do my best to make amends. Viewing, reviewing and predicting has begun in earnest. Doilies be damned.

I’m off to a late start. I should have been paying attention to the Oscar Buzz and chosen likely films to see in November and December. Many of them were out there. Waiting for the nominee list to come out feels a little like cheating. It means a lot of the chaff has already  been stripped away with no help from me. But it also means that I can focus my time and ticket money on the wheat and what fun that will be! Imagine being given the opportunity to see only good films. That’s what we’ve got here. It’s like movie Christmas—and it only comes once a year.

You can do it, too. Go to Click on NOMINEES. When you get to that page, click on PRINTABLE LIST to get your own ballot—a beacon to guide you through the season. Then see as many films as you can to be ready for Awards Night on March 4.

There are at least twenty films that I should see between now and March 4. As of today, I have seen two. Wish me luck.

As I see films, I’ll post a brief review here on my blog. I’ll make a concerted effort to avoid spoilers, so don’t be afraid to read them. Here, for example, is my review of The Shape of Water that appeared on my author Facebook page (D. Margaret Hoffman) yesterday:

Oscar Quest–The Shape of Water: 13 nominations including Best Picture.
This is a beautiful film. The performances are flawless and the look of it evokes the late 50s, early 60s world that shaped so many of us. The sights and sounds and sensory-ness of the film carry the day. The story, sadly, is one we’ve seen so many times that it’s hard to escape the cliché of it all. The misunderstood creature, mistreated by the government and coveted as a subject of study by scientists becomes the love interest of the lonely misfit who must then risk everything to save its life. ET. King Kong. Avatar. Fill in your favorite here. Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed the performances, the music and the visuals–many of which are Oscar-worthy. But the plot ultimately let me down. Tears formed but never fell.

And that’s it. Short, sweet, to the point and from the gut.

Sometime before 8pm on March 4, I’ll post my choices for as many categories as I feel qualified to predict. We’ll see how I do. Those who have watched me do this before know that, if I’m on my game, I can be a contender.

I’m a little rusty, but here goes.

Welcome to Oscar Quest, 2018.





Happy New Year! 1

Sometimes, in order to go forward, we need to look back.  Even though a few years have passed since I sat down and wrote “Getting My Groove Back,” an essay about getting back to normal after the holiday craziness, I find that it is as true today as it was the day I wrote it. It appears in Saving Our Lives: Volume One–Essays to Inspire the Writer in You and still sums up my feelings on the subject. So, to ring in the new year, here it is again.  Happy 2018, Everyone! Onward!

Getting My Groove Back

Christmas changes everything.

If you are a religious person, you are nodding and thinking of the promise of the Christ child.

If you are me, you are shaking your head and thinking, “Damn, I did it again.”

It is January. I am not the same person I was in November. I am heavier, poorer, slower. I haven’t written, exercised or kept regular hours in a month. I have ingested sugar in a frightening assortment of processed forms and carbs in abundance. I have spent much more money than I intended and dread the arrival of the first MasterCard bill of the new year. I enjoyed the holiday season very much. But somewhere in the middle of it I lost my mind.

For me, it seems, The Christmas Season brings with it the slow, imperceptible erosion of good habits, good judgment and common sense. I start out well enough. Adult. Responsible. Health conscious. Fiscally aware. But somewhere in the process, probably about the time I start to enjoy the 475 department store versions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” I begin to lose my grip. It’s ironic, really. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a seduction song in the guise of a charming holiday tune. It is the story of one man’s shameless efforts to feign concern for the welfare of an innocent young woman, ply her with drink, break down her resolve to go home to her parents where she belongs and convince her, instead, to stay with him where it’s—nudge, nudge—warm. When the girl in the song concedes to another drink, we know she’s fallen. And when I start to enjoy this and the countless other corporate seductions thrown in my path, we know that I, too, have succumbed to a siren song, this one sung by the Ghost of Christmas the Way American Media Tells Us It Should Be.  Snowy. Bountiful. Bejeweled.  Sugary.  Carb-loaded. Gift-laden. Calorically dense. Alcoholically lenient. Impeccably decorated. Expensively dressed. Beautifully wrapped. Cost is no object! More! More! More! Yes! Yes! YES!!

They got me. Pulled me right in there. Got under my skin and into my wallet. Inhibitions fall away, the shopping begins in earnest and I officially lose control.

Why do I let this happen?

Well, for one thing, I like it.

I don’t like being manipulated by the media and the corporate America that it represents, but I do like the Currier and Ives, traditional, bountiful family Christmas that it portrays.

I like parties and presents and decorations and fancy food. I like lights and shopping and snow. I like having the family all together. I like having friends, acknowledging them and having them acknowledge me.  I like happy people. I like making happy people. I like ooohs and ahhhhs and kids with cookies. I like full plates and clinking glasses and sparkles on trees and on sweaters and in people’s eyes.

I like it when everyone forgets for a little while that there are so many things in this world that suck.

I like life coming pretty damned close to perfect once a year. I will do whatever I can to make this happen for people in my life even if it means taking temporary leave of my senses.

Who knows when or if the chance will come again?

This kind of Christmas doesn’t happen by itself. I have recently taken charge of the extended family Christmas celebrations, so I know how much work and planning goes into it. It’s a big responsibility. I take it seriously, and as much as I want to save time and pinch pennies, every year I reach that moment when I say, “What the hell! It’s Christmas!” And I mean it. But it’s like having that first glass of wine too early in the evening.  Once I quaff the Christmas Kool-Aid there’s no turning back. I shift into preparation overdrive and I inevitably overdo, as evidenced by the mountains of leftovers, the gifts that looked great under the tree but are not very useful later and the growing number of Rubbermaid tubs that it takes to store the decorations. This is my problem—enjoying the cruise without tumbling overboard. I’m working on it.

December, I’ve realized, is an anomaly. We have a sanctioned opportunity in December to find a crazy place that is just not available to us at any other time. That means loosening the restraints of the rest of the year, at least a little. It shouldn’t mean gaining twenty pounds, pickling our livers or going into hock, but it should allow everyone to experience the love and respite of at least one good party, whatever that means to us. Even if we give it to ourselves.

But getting there sure does throw off a groove.

And that is what January is for. It is the morning after. It is when we realize that it’s great to break the routine and have a wonderful time, but those songs that wish for Christmas all year ’round don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s beautiful to put up decorations and to enjoy them with people we love, but it is also a huge relief to take them down and vacuum the cookie crumbs out of the carpet. It feels good to eat salads again, to walk around the neighborhood instead of the mall and to give my charge card a chance to cool down. The tree was lovely this year, but it is nice now to have the window unobstructed to let in that precious, fleeting January daylight.

Seeking perfection and happiness is hard work and living up to such stratospheric expectations is only possible for short periods of time. January reminds us that cookies make us fat, that dried up pine needles hurt when we step on them, that staying up late makes us unproductive, that parties and presents come at a price, that maybe we did let corporate America get the better of us and that there really are many, many things in this world that suck. That’s the way things are. But having had a break from them in the noble pursuit of comfort and joy makes it all a little easier to live with.

December, then, is a vast departure from real life, like a much-needed family excursion to Disney World. This is good. January brings reality back. This is good, too.

But now we are encouraged to improve, to embrace the New Year, to renew ourselves with obligatory resolutions. I am not looking for a New Me. I caught a glimpse of that chick in December. And while she was cool, she is not at all sustainable. Maybe next December she’ll be back, armed with responsible intentions that will once again come unglued two weeks after Thanksgiving.  But she is not who I want to be now. So instead of resolutions, I am using January to make restorations, replacing the sprees of December with the sanity and steady habits of November from which I took an unsolicited yet predictable vacation. I was pretty happy with how things were going then and I’d like to now move forward by taking a step back. This means settling back into my groove by writing every day, walking every day, keeping the bird feeder full, maintaining a clean, low-glycemic diet (you hear that, chocolate?), getting out to the cineplex every once in a while, staying out of the mall except around birthdays, keeping in touch with friends and loving my family. No need to set the world on fire.

At least not until next December.









As if it wasn’t hard enough the first time, I am asking you to VOTE FOR ME AGAIN.

Remember the poll that I told you about last week? Your response was terrific—all I could ask for. Except then the poll people decided to lift the one-vote restriction after seven days so that everyone who voted for me in the Just the Right Book poll last week can now VOTE FOR ME AGAIN. (Well, I guess everyone who voted for anyone can vote again, not just those who voted for me. But I’m not interested in them.)

So, if you voted for me anytime between December 1 and December 7, YOU CAN VOTE FOR ME AGAIN, on all of your devices, on Thursday, December 14. From what I can tell by the clock on the tally page of the contest, voting ends on December 14, around 7 pm.

So, if you have a minute and you’re not put off by my groveling,  please click the link below on Thursday and VOTE FOR ME AGAIN.

Thanks. You’re awesome. I promise I won’t ask again.





Vote For Me!!! 5

You know how much I hate blowing my own horn. My lips get all tingly and my cheeks turn red and my teeth jangle and my head aches like hell. But sometimes I simply have to step up to the bandstand, take a deep breath, pucker up and make some noise. And since ‘tis the season, here goes.

I have an opportunity for my first book, Saving Our Lives: Volume One—Essays to Inspire the Writer in YOU, to be featured on a podcast by Roxanne Coady, the founder and owner of the famous R. J. Julia Bookstore in Madison, Connecticut. Roxanne is a big deal in independent book circles. Her opinions are influential and her reach is long. Her “Just the Right Book” podcast is gaining steam and I want very much to be a part of it.

But there’s a catch.

People have to vote for me.

Aaarrggh. You know what that means. I have to screw my courage to the sticking place, pretend I am confident and get out there and ask for your vote. Now I know why I will never run for office—not that this book poll requires me to canvas neighborhoods, make speeches or work the phones, but standing up and saying, “My book is worth your vote,” even though I believe it, is really hard for me to do. I’ve always felt, even in my teaching life, that the work should speak for itself and that if my work is good enough it will find its way into the world with no help from me.

But that would be the easy way out and we all know that life is not like that.

So, here it comes. If you like what I write, please consider going to the “Just the Right Book” website, clicking Vote Now, scrolling down to Saving Our Lives and voting for me. Then, share the link with your family and friends and recommend that they, too, vote for me. You may vote until Friday, December 15.

Here’s the link:

JTRB’s Independent Author Poll

And, while you’re at it, please consider the Saving Our Lives books when you are doing your holiday shopping. They might be just the thing.



Maybe If We All Just Sing 2

Times are weird. We are on edge. It’s hard to know what the future holds for things that we have long taken for granted. War hangs over us like a sword. Guns kill babies. Cars crash into crowds. Churches consider the employment of armed guards on Sunday mornings. We are as politically divided as ever. Families argue. Fists flail. Facts fail us. Little pink hats represent not innocence but resistance. Everyone is angry. What can we do?

Well, for one thing, we can sing.

Sure. Whatever.

No. Really. I mean it. We could find a local choir and we could show up and sing in it. Or we could go to a choral concert and sing along—or just sit quietly, listen deeply and let the music massage the tension from our souls.

Late fall is choral concert season around here. Community choirs that reconvened from summer breaks in September have been rehearsing their programs for the last two months and are getting ready to perform. I sang in a concert this past weekend and I know of at least three more choirs readying performances in the next couple of weeks that I hope to attend. I can tell you that both singing and listening focus my energy, calm my fears and rekindle my faith in the goodness of people, their willingness to cooperate with one another and their ability to join together to create something beautiful.

If everyone did it, we’d all be a lot happier.

I sing in a chorale of about sixty members. It is my second year which makes me a newbie compared to a lot of them, some of whom have been devoted singers in this group for decades. Yet, instead of becoming cloistered as long-existing groups can get sometimes, their doors are wide opened to anyone who wants to work toward the common goal—making beautiful music accessible to everyone. And so we do.

In my books, I have written essays about my singing experiences. If you have read them, you know that, even though I have been singing since I was a kid, I am, even still, a complete and total amateur. There are some professionals who sing with us and our director is, of course, a maestro of the highest calling. All of them, incidentally, are much younger than I am. But instead of feeling intimidated by their youth and talent, I find that I am invigorated by it. Every week in rehearsal, I get to listen to them and learn from them and then add my voice, stumbling sometimes, to the magnificence of it all. And I am needed because in choral singing every voice matters. None of us can do it alone. There is no such thing as a choir of one. It is a cooperative effort of composer, conductor, instrumentalists, vocalists and audience and there’s power in the collaboration. Take any part away and the experience is diminished.

It is a timely and much-needed reminder of the good things we can put out into the world when we work together.

Keats said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”  In a time in our society where both truth and beauty are at a premium, we need to find them and elevate them wherever we can. Choral music is a fine and accessible place to start. You don’t have to be a virtuoso to sing along. You just have to be willing to find your place in the song.  Attending or participating in live, local performances make us part of an incoming tide that will raise all of our boats—working together to make sure that humanity never forgets the beauty of which it is capable.

So sing. Or support a local choir. Or both.  Instead of adding to the cacophony that frightens and divides us, let’s make beautiful music—together.


If you are a New Englander, here’s a directory of choirs throughout the region that will help you to get started. I hope you take a look and find a group near you to join or support.






See what I did there?

This is a novice attempt at a clickbait title—one with a connotative, emotional punch that may not necessarily reflect its denotative, literal, dictionary-definition self. I hope that when you read this you think, “Oooh! Confession time! Juicy tidbits! Must click!”

Bold faced, upper case and in your face—with some italics thrown in for good measure.

Did it work?

Because, you know what?  I’m just trying to figure out how to get your attention. It’s called marketing. And you know what else? I suck at it.

It’s as if I were held back for the third time in Remedial Marketing 101, cowering in the back of the room where, with any luck, the teacher can’t see me. If only I could figure out a way to let her know that I’m really good at other stuff—just not this.

In my time as an essayist and an independent publisher, I have learned many things about the art and craft and business of it all. Now, I can write a book (as in creating, editing, revising, finalizing text) and I can produce a book (as in formatting, cover production, arrangement of text and creating a final product both in paper and digital formats) and I can win awards for said written and produced books (as in the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Award for Volume One from the Independent Book Publishers Association), validating the effort.

But that’s not enough. Now I have to sell the damned things, too!

I can only wear so many hats.

There are lots (and lots and lots) of ways to market books when you are an indy. There are organizations and publications and websites and social media posts and webinars and workshops and consultants and conferences and magicians and guardian angels and fairy godmothers galore to help you succeed or, if you’re not careful, to take your money and run.  In fact, the market is swamped with them. It’s a full-time job to sort through rabble and to separate the legitimates from the cheats. Some of them are very good at what they do and are quite reputable. Others are very good at, well, marketing—if you catch my drift. 

You can also tackle it yourself. I’ve done some reading and some conference attending and some networking. I’ve set up a booth at craft shows and farmers markets. I’ve given talks and workshops and I’ve participated in author panels and readings in schools and libraries. I have a media presence through my website, this blog, an author Facebook page and an existing Twitter account. (I must admit that I really don’t get Twitter. Do you?) All of these activities (and more) are recommended by those in-the-know, and some of them have actually been fun. I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement, positive feedback and fresh air.

And every time I sell a book, I get that Sally Field “You like me! You really like me!” moment that makes it all worthwhile.

But there are other paths that I need to take if I want my book sales to actually pay the bills—or maybe even just pay for themselves. I need to be more ambitious, more confident, more aggressive. A good product, I’ve learned, isn’t enough unless it’s paired with a good Marketing Plan. In fact, the MP is almost more important than the product. We all know of bad products that make good money when the MP is strong enough. As Mark Twain (the crowned prince of self-promotion) said in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, “Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.”

So buyer beware, right?

But you don’t need to beware of me because of all this self-promotion stuff runs counter to my nature. More than that, pursuing these paths takes me away from the reason I started all this in the first place—the writing.

It’s a quandary, all right.

We write to be read, and we strive to be the best writers we can be. But the pursuit of readers, who complete the circle and make the writing meaningful, requires a whole other set of skills. I’m working on them, but they don’t come naturally to me.

I’m reading a book about Ernest Hemingway and it has interested me to learn about what a relentless self-promoter he was right from the beginning. If humility was in his genes, it was recessive for sure. This didn’t make him the most appealing guy to be around and lots of people didn’t like him. But it got him noticed and, eventually, published. Is this what I have to do to launch a writing career? Run with bulls? Be flat broke? Move to Paris to rub elbows with all of the “right” people?  Marry four of them? Throw tantrums in the street when people piss me off?  Risk everything? Seems like a lot to ask.

I’d rather just write.

So, for now, that’s what I intend to do. It’s not a great career move, but I’d rather spend my time getting the words on the page while the getting is good. I’m working on the third and final volume of Saving Our Lives and I have a fourth project floating in my head that will take my work in an entirely new direction. Maybe after these projects are put to bed, I’ll improve my marketing skills beyond what they are now.

But I won’t like it.

So WHAT HAVE I DONE??  Nothing terrible, you’ll be relieved (or disappointed) to know. I have written and produced two books that are out there on Amazon and Barnes and Noble waiting for buyers—but mostly for readers. I think they’re really good, even though I feel weird saying it. The holidays are coming. My books would look great poking out of the top of a stocking. Or artfully displayed around your menorah. Or stuffed in your turkey. Or tucked into the bottom of your birdcage. And, while you’re busy reading them, I’m going to see if I can pound out a couple more while the juices are still flowing. I’ll let you know when they’re ready so that you can make some room for them on your bookshelf.

See what I did there?