Keeping it Real with Feelings


Back in 2011 when I was tossing around ideas for this blog with now co-blogger Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, I was also going through a family crisis. One of my children had been in and out of the hospital for six months and there was no real end to this pattern in sight. Additionally, I had a book coming out on the first day of 2012 that I hadn’t had time to publicize, and I felt the need and desire to start a new blog. I remember telling Sudipta, “I want to start a blog but it has to be something I can handle.”

Choosing a format that showcases smart, accomplished women and also highlights quotes from women past and present ended up being what I could handle. I have enjoyed every interview and have been inspired myself by some amazing quotes while seeking out quotes to share with you.

But this format also offered a buffer. A buffer between the world and my emotions. Because at that point in my life, I felt I was hanging on to my emotions by a thread, and I was afraid that even putting them out there a little might cause me to unravel. Of course at that point, I wasn’t completely aware that this was what I was doing.

When Sudipta came on board in 2012 she wrote a few posts themed What Happens in High School Stays in High School. We had great response to those posts! I think this is because Sudipta shared feelings that our audience could connect to. We had a similar response to my subsequent post, Why I Went Into the Woods, which details the physical and emotional need to get away every now and then to achieve focus.

The human experience is so varied and vast, that no two of us share the same pasts, but we’ve all had feelings of joy and sadness, anger and love. Understanding this, as writers, also helps our creations.

The first time editor extraordinaire Patti Lee Gauch critiqued my manuscript at a Highlights Foundation workshop she wrote of my main character,“How does she FEEL?” in the margins about five times on every page. I had offered a good plot, but hadn’t given readers a means to connect to my character emotionally.  I’ve had to go back and flesh out my characters’ emotions on every manuscript I’ve completed. But at least I know to do that now!

Now that things are much better for my child, getting back in touch with those bottled in feelings doesn’t seem so scary. Sudipta and I have a lot of ideas about how to move forward with Nerdy Chicks Rule. We will keep interviewing smart women and we’ll keep bringing you inspirational quotes, but one thing we also want to add more posts about experiences… and how they make us feel!


*This summer I wrote about using feelings to help readers connect with writing over at Stephanie Scott’s blog. Check it out HERE.

*If you are a writer inspired to add feeling to your work, or a teacher working with students to make their work more colorful, check out the Emotion Thesaurus.

The Quotable Nerdy Chick: Frances Perkins

File:Image FrancesPerkinsAfterRooseveltsDeath.jpgIn 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed a woman named Frances Perkins as Secretary of the Department of Labor. This was the first time a woman held a cabinet position in the United States. She held this position for twelve years, the longest tenure of any Secretary of Labor. That means Frances was not only the first time a woman to enter the presidential line of succession, but that she was in line for the job for over a decade. As astonishing as this is, Frances was probably so used to breaking convention by that point that it hardly shortened her stride. After all, she went to court to defend her right to keep her own name after she got married (in a time when women were really only known by their association with men) and she was sole wage earner in her family. As Secretary of Labor through the New Deal, Frances put a lasting mark on American life and culture. We can thank her for things like social security, unemployment insurance, federal child labor laws, and the federal minimum wage. Find out more about this amazing Nerdy Chick HERE.

Frances Perkins Quotes:

  • “Being a woman has only bothered me in climbing trees.”
  • “The door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time, and I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the right of others long hence and far distant in geography to sit in the high seats.”
  • “I promise to use what brains I have to meet problems with intelligence and courage. I promise that I will be candid about what I know. I promise to all of you who have the right to know, the whole truth so far as I can speak it. If I have been wrong, you may tell me so, for I really have no pride in judgment.”
  • “Most of man’s problems upon this planet, in the long history of the race, have been met and solved either partially or as a whole by experiment based on common sense and carried out with courage.”

Barbara Johansen Newman: Glamorous Glasses!

Today, guest interviewer, Mary Zisk,  talks with illustrator and writer, Barbara Johansen Newman. I met Mary, a talented author and artist at the SCBWI NJ Conference. She is a follower of this blog.  Mary  is a mild-mannered magazine art director by day, and a children’s book writer and illustrator by night. She’s proud to be a Jersey Girl.

barbFormer Jersey Girl, Barbara Johansen Newman now lives outside of Boston with her husband , three sons, and studio companion, Bitty, the French bulldog. She has always loved to draw. Her first artwork was done when she was a baby, standing in her crib, writing on her bedroom wall. Sooner or later Barbara stopped drawing on walls and began to draw on paper like most people. After going to college, spending some time making dolls, puppets, and performing as a puppeteer, Barbara began to illustrate and create art for many newspapers, magazines and books. Now she spends most of her time writing and illustrating books for children and also designing fabrics for sewing.

 Thanks, Barbara, for talking with us today. We know that being a Nerdy Chick rules. But, looking back, if you could give your middle school or high school self one piece of advice, what would it be? I could pretend my seventh grade self would listen if I told her not to worry about what her peers were thinking, but I am sure she would roll her eyes and let me go in one ear and out the other. I certainly could not tell her that none of the people around her would matter much in ten years because I ended up marrying one of those seventh graders in my own section and here we still are almost fifty years later.

What I would tell her is that she should try to remember as much of the “feel” and mind set as she could of that very year, because it was the tail end of the last period of relative innocence and simple pleasures, and things would change very drastically before the decade was up.

You’ve illustrated many picture books and chapter books written by other authors. What led you to write and illustrate your own picture book, Tex & Sugar: A Big City Kitty Ditty? Plus it’s all written in verse, which was very brave of you to attempt. Tex and Sugar began as a poem called “Tex Mex Rex,” part of a collection of poems I had written in 1983 called “Seven Working Kitty City Ditties.” In 1984 I took a trip to NYC to show my portfolio and one of the art editors at Knopf pointed to that poem and said, “Turn this into its own book.” Seventeen years later I pulled that poem out and started working on it. I sold it in 2005 and it came out in 2007. So that story cooked on the stove for twenty-four years.

It is harder for me to NOT write in verse, to be honest. I love rhyme. I also love music. Rhyming verse is like music to me.

Well, it was worth the wait. I love Tex & Sugar, especially for the insane amount of detail in your illustrations. Where do you think your obsession with detail comes barb3from? I have a very vivid memory, so it is hard for me to draw something or report something and leave out the details because then I feel like then I am not telling the whole story. I love those small details.

Your brand new book, Glamorous Glasses, deals with another obsession: GLASSES. Glasses have been considered nerdy in the past, but are now enjoyed as trendy jewelry for the face. The book was inspired by your childhood. What happened? I went with my cousin to the optician’s office in Elizabeth, New Jersey to pick out glasses. As I watched my cousin Joanie try on pair after pair, I became totally enamored with the way they looked on her face and even more so with the materials they were made of. I wanted glasses too, but I didn’t need them. The obsession never went away, and finally, as an adult, I do need them.

I have painted eyewear on my characters since I began illustrating in 1982, so the number of pairs of glasses I have painted is in the thousands.

I think Tex and Sugar, and Bobby and Joanie have unique talents and style. What lessons (or inspiration) do they give kids (or even us grownup nerdy chicks)? Tex and Sugar each follow a passion. We all need to cultivate a passion and make it part of day-to-day life. Having a dream or a goal enriches life. It gives you something to strive for. I also think it is good that kids see that success is not easy; you need to work for it and move toward it.

Bobbie and Joanie almost send the opposite message in that they both learn that getting what you want isn’t necessarily a good thing. Maybe their message is more about understanding what it is that one really wants and determining if it’s worth pursuing or if it is just a superficial quest. They each come to realize that clearly seeing where they are going and what they are doing is the most important thing.

You’ve certainly followed your passions over the years. What has been the best thing about your career? My career has taken so many twists and turns with regard to materials and approaches and venues. Now I know every time I dip my toe into something new, it really turns out to have everything to do with where I am and have always been. So, through painting, drawing, puppetry, dolls, sewing, illustrating, writing, textile design, and back to painting again, it is all part of the whole me and who I am.

Besides your personal artistry, do you have a favorite way to flaunt your brain power? I am a nut for word games. My husband will not play Scrabble with me, because I always beat him, so when Words With Friends came about and I got an iPhone, I became the proverbial kid let loose in a candy store.

I love Scrabble, but it’s also a tactile experience for me. I love those wooden letters, so I don’t think I would take to Word with Friends. Besides playing with words, is there something else you like to do that might be considered a little bit nerdy, but is actually really fun? I have loved antiques since I was a kid. I began to buy things in my teens and by the time I was twenty and I moved off to Buffalo I was starting to hit my stride. Because of this love I have actually gotten to know quite a bit of historical information about Americana and old houses. I could easily go into another career as an antiques dealer.

Has your interest in antiques and history caused you to admire any particular well-known nerdy chick?  Yes, I really like Doris Kerns Goodwin. She makes me love history and she was one of my favorite guests on Don Imus’ show when I could still listen every day in the car. I also love that she is a big baseball fan. She is super smart and wonderfully interesting but there is no arrogance that emanates from her.

What might surprise us about you? Any social norms you are fond of flouting? I love anything to do with the paranormal and I will, given the chance, watch every single ghost hunting show on TV, much to the disdain of my husband who never passes up an opportunity to make fun of the shows (and me). I also tend to believe in reincarnation. I drive him crazy with this stuff.

I am a reluctant psychic. I have had experiences all my life but I have no idea why or how. I would love to be better at it, but who has the time?

barb2Thanks, Barb, for spending time with the Nerdy Chicks. What’s coming up for you in the future? Bobbie and Joanie from Glamorous Glasses will be in another book together, due out in 2014. I know those characters so well and I want to see them have a lot of adventures and life experiences together. I’ve illustrated two series by other authors and I am thrilled to be developing one of my own.

My latest artistic pursuit in addition to the children’s books is a return to painting. In 2009, I purchased a studio in an old mill building in town and I now have a real space to paint large works on canvas and other materials. This past year I began to collaborate with another artist who builds frames out of antique dough boards and other antique objects, which I then paint on. My painting work is art for arts’s sake. I love illustrating text, but sometimes it is nice to work on pieces that contain their own narrative within, not bound by any written word.

To find out more about Barbara, check out these links: 

Facebook pages:

 Glam Glasses site:

 Twitter page:


 You can read more about Barbara on her web site:

maryzTo find out more about interviewer Mary Zisk, visit her website at!  

The Quotable Nerdy Chick: Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin

File:Dorothy Hodgkin Nobel.jpgOn August 14, 1969, Dr. Dorothy Hodgkin used a science she had pioneered — X-ray crystallography — to decipher the three-dimensional structure of insulin, a protein that plays an important role in diabetes. This discovery helped scientists understand how to treat the symptoms of diabetes. What is remarkable is that this momentious discovery was made after Dorothy had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964, only the third woman to ever win this Nobel Prize (the other two were Marie Curie in 1911 and her daughter, Irene Joliet-Curie, in 1935). Dorothy was awarded the Nobel Prize for her work on the structure of a different important molecule, vitamin B-12.

For most people, a Nobel prize would be enough. Not Dorothy! She also was the second woman to receive the Order of Merit (after Florence Nightingale), the first woman to receive the Copley Medal, a Fellow of the Royal Society, a recipient of the Lenin Peace Prize, the Longstaff Medal, the Mikhail Lomonosov Gold Medal, the Dimitrov Prize 1984. Oh, and she’s on a stamp, too. Learn more about Dorothy HERE.

Quotes from Dorothy Hodgkin:

  • “I was captured for life by chemistry and by crystals.”
  • “I meant to, to study chemistry, and it was really intended by my family that, whatever happened, I should go to Oxford, which was where my father had been before me, because sadly he had no boys, so I had to manage.”
  • “There are two moments that are important. There’s the moment when you know you can find out the answer and that’s the period you are sleepless before you know what it is. When you’ve got it and know what it is, then you can rest easy.”
  • “One’s tendency when one is young is to do experiments just to see what will happen, without really looking for specific things at all. I first set up a little laboratory in the attic at home just to grow crystals or try experiments described in books, such as adding a lot of concentrated sulfuric acid to the blood from a nosebleed which precipitates hemotin from the hemoglobin in the blood. That was quite a nice experiment. I still remember it.”

Nancy Kennedy: Working for Nonprofits

nancyOne thing that has always impressed me most about my former neighbor Nancy Kennedy is that in addition to everything else she does, she is, and always has been, a wonderful cook.  She produces a complete meal from her cozy kitchen almost every night and, having been a guest at her table on many occasions, I can say that every mouthful is delicious. I’ve asked her more than once, “Does your husband know how lucky he is?” (If he doesn’t, I hope he’s reading this now!) But Nancy is also a highly organized and super-efficient leader, who has spent most of her adult life working for non-profits, either as a volunteer, or an employee. She has been president of Stone Academy PTA, Council PTA, and ECW (Episcopal Church Women), and has worked in the schools and community in other volunteer positions. Prior to that, she worked for the American Red Cross, and now she is volunteer coordinator and office manager for OLLI at Furman University, her alma mater. Thanks Nancy for joining us today!

If you could give your middle school or high school self one piece of advice, what would it be? Don’t worry about most of the stuff your friends and classmates say about you.  They are kids and they don’t know what they’re talking about.  

Ha! J You’ve spent most of your career working for nonprofit agencies. How is this rewarding to you?  It’s certainly not financially rewarding, but I am fortunate that my income is a supplemental one and not the one we rely on for groceries and mortgage payments. 

The American Red Cross is a wonderful organization, and one that I was proud to represent as a spokesperson and fundraiser.  Most people know the Red Cross responds to disasters, but many forget that we have ALL benefited from Red Cross programs through swimming lessons, being watched by a Red Cross-trained lifeguard, or knowing that our children are cared for at school by teachers who have completed Red Cross First Aid and CPR classes.  I enjoyed educating the public about ALL of the Red Cross programs, and as a result raising funds to support those programs.

In April, 2011, after 13 years as a stay-at-home mom and community volunteer, I went back to work in a part-time position at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Furman University.   While there’s no age requirement, members of OLLI at Furman are generally 55 and older and most are retired.  They come to OLLI to take classes ranging from Latin to Woodcarving to Shakespeare to Genetics.  There are no tests, no homework, and no papers.  Most of the classes are taught by our members and all of our instructors teach for the joy of teaching because they are not paid for their efforts.  In addition to classes, we have social events, tours, speakers, and special interest groups.  Our program provides a way for seniors to continue to learn and also provides members the opportunity to stretch themselves further through volunteering, OLLI leadership, and teaching.  I love my job for many reasons, but I think one of the best parts is that it is so nice to work in a place where everyone is happy to be there. It’s a joy to see our members enjoying their retirement years, learning new things, making new friends, volunteering together in the community, and supporting each other.  (And working at my alma mater is a HUGE bonus!)

What skills are needed to work for OLLI? What is required of you so that the program is successful? My responsibilities include managing the office, managing our two college student workers, and working with membership, volunteers, and social events.  I say I do the “fun stuff”—the extra things beyond classes that help enrich the OLLI experience.  No two days are alike and many of our days are crazy busy, especially at the beginning of each term.  We have around 1,000 members excited about coming back to “school,” and they come back with questions, they drop and add classes, new volunteers come in, and there is just a lot going on.  Anyone who works in our office must be able to work through frequent interruptions.  I don’t mind those a bit. 

One of the main talents I employ at work is encouraging people to volunteer and helping them find the right volunteer job.  This seems to be one of my biggest gifts; I’ve been successful in many different areas in recruiting volunteers and getting the most from them.  I’ve had volunteers I’ve recruited for PTA, my kids’ swim team, and Sunday School teaching say that they can’t tell me no.  That ability is one of the traits that helped me land this job.  I wish I could tell you how I do it, but I’m really not sure why I’m more successful at recruiting volunteers.  I know how I like to be treated when I volunteer, so I guess I try to treat others the same way.

Yes, I remember being recruited by you once for a PTA event. I couldn’t tell you no either! Work aside, what’s something you like to do that might be considered a little bit nerdy, but is actually really fun?  I love puzzles—any kind.  I enjoy doing all of the puzzles that are in the newspaper:  Sudoku, crosswords, Jumble, Cryptoquote, and Scrabble.  I always have a few Words with Friends games going.  I love working on jigsaw puzzles, although I still haven’t forgiven my husband for his gift several years ago of a 2000-piece puzzle.  It’s a beautiful scene from a coastal town in Italy, but it’s mostly sky and water, hence it’s all blue except for a tiny sliver of town.  I still haven’t finished that one….

Like I said in the introduction, you are a wonderful cook! Tell us about something (a skill, a secret recipe, a tool) that contributes to your success in the kitchen. I do like to cook and reading cookbooks is one of my favorite things to do.  (That sounds a bit nerdy, doesn’t it?)  I’m lucky to have family (and friends!) who will try just about anything; that makes it even more fun. Several years ago we got a new stove.  It’s dual fuel—it has a gas cooktop and an electric oven.  I just adore it.  Soon after, I received a very nice set of pots and pans for Christmas, and then treated myself to a really good set of knives.  That was when I realized how important good tools are.   I truly believe my cooking has improved immensely since I’ve had a gas cooktop, good pots, and a decent knife.

Thanks for sharing your tools of the kitchen and tools of the trade! OLLI is lucky to have you.

To find out more about OLLI, click HERE. There is an easy map at this site to help you find OLLI programs near you. I’ve been to a few here in Beaufort. Some OLLIs have age restrictions, but many are open to all ages.  Check the site for more details. 



Why I Went Into The Woods

My Cabin at Highlights

My Cabin at Highlights

I went into the woods because a house pulls on your brain. It demands things of you. It wants you to use its kitchen, then clean it up. It wants you to use its bathroom, then clean it up. It wants you to dust and vacuum, to sort and put away. It is a demanding creature and I don’t think I can ever satisfy it. So every now and then… I leave it.

When I can, I leave it for the hills of Pennsylvania, where a quiet cabin awaits me. The cabin is giving and forgiving, it wants nothing in return. Down the hill from my cabin is a staffed kitchen full of smiling folks who cook and clean. They are better than House Elves. Because of them, I do not have to look at dirty pots and pans. I do not have to think about meal preparation. All I have to think about is what I want to think about, which is writing.

For me, this is true freedom. Each time I come here, I leave with well written chapters and renewed energy for writing. I leave with new ideas and refurbished old ones. But while a cabin can offer you escape, and freedom, it cannot love you. Which is Why I Always Go Back Home to the demanding house that holds dust and dirty dishes… family and love.

*     *     *

I wrote the above while attending the Highlights Unworkshop in October of 2012, intending to post it as soon as I got

Who knew so much could happen at such a tiny desk.

Who knew so much could happen at such a tiny desk.

home. But one thing after another distracted me. And now, as I work on a novel I was contracted to write since returning home from that unworkshop, I am wishing for the focus that being away brings!

The sink is full of dirty dishes. The laundry waits impatiently. But I am writing anyway today. And I am happy. Whether at home, or away from it all, I hope you are too.

Nerdy Chick interviews return next week!

The Quotable Nerdy Chick: Indira Gandhi

Indira2Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) was the third prime minister of India. Her father was India’s first prime minister. She served from 1966-1977 and again from 1980 until she was assassinated in 1984. Find out more about her life and her service to her country HERE

The quotes that follow are some of my favorite quotes that we’ve featured yet.

Indira Gandhi Quotes:

  • My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition.
  • People tend to forget their duties but remember their rights.
  • Martyrdom does not end something, it is only a beginning.
  • You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.
  • I don’t mind if my life goes in the service of the nation. If I die today every drop of my blood will invigorate the nation.

It is amazing how people never change. I love the second quote. So appropriate, even today!

Looking Back, Moving Forward

Me, signing books at my first launch party, January 2012.

Me, signing books at my launch party, January 2012.

Yesterday was the one year anniversary of my first novel’s debut. Having a book release on New Year’s day is certainly one way to start the year off with a bang! What followed was a whirlwind tour of blog interviews, guest posts, author visits, conference appearances, and celebrating what it took me so long to achieve. This was followed by the inclusion of one of my poems in Nasty Bugs, and more recently, a contract for a second Boy Project Book! Hats off to 2012!

2012 also turned out to be a great year for my family. (Okay, here is where I admit that I just typed and deleted variations of the same sentence about 15 times. I can’t find words to describe how tough 2011 was, so suffice it to say that we celebrated many blessings in 2012 and are kind of sad to say goodbye to a much needed good year.)

And of course, this blog was born in 2012. Interviewing so many strong, smart women, and researching famous females to quote has made me stronger… and hopefully smarter too. Thank you, thank you, for following us as we change, grow, and celebrate the achievements of some amazing people.

Like all years, 2012 also brought its share of sadness. The week before Christmas I lost one of my closest friends to cancer. Her last few weeks were very difficult and I was lucky to be able to spend quality time with her. I am so thankful that I had that chance.  But I didn’t feel much like writing, or blogging, during these weeks. It seems like when your days are heavy with sadness, the pen weighs a ton in your hand.

Today, I stumbled across a Chinese proverb that inspired me to pick up the pen again. Here it is:

You cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.

(For those of you who have just seen The Hobbit, you probably have a ready mental image of those last five words.)

So today I will shake out my hair and start writing again. I have a book to finish, nerdy chicks to interview, children to encourage, and, of course, a house to clean. Even the latter is a blessing. I look forward to sharing all that 2013 brings  with you! May the birds of sorrow spend most of their time flying over open land.

Happy New Year!






And 2012 proved to be a much better year for us than 2013!