9 Books That Changed My Life – No, To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t on the List

9 Books That Changed My Life

9 Books That Changed My Life

Let me warn you before you continue reading: To Kill a Mockingbird is not on the list.

My family is full of reluctant readers, avid readers, fanatical readers, anti-readers. We’re a mixture, like society at large. In fact I’m married to a man of action who reads magazines and articles online but not many books.

Books inform my parenting, they impact my marriage, they influence how I relate to my siblings and friends and coworkers. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re much the same.

That’s not to say I follow a manual to operate as a human on a daily basis. My way of being in the world is more influenced by the wisdom of my elders sprinkled with liberal dashes of quotes, ideas,  and anecdotes from trusted books, along with the occasional visual aid. Sometimes, I’m not even sure where I read something but I quote it anyway.

So how do ink, paper and glue actually transform a life?

The following books did one of these things for me:

  1. Instilled a love of the written word or a particular author
  2. Provided insight on human development, including my own
  3. Inspired risk-taking and change (aka living)
  4. Stuck with me

That a made-up story could evoke emotion and temporarily remove me from the everyday turned me into a reader.

Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare – I was an 8th grader from a blue collar family, and I was reading Shakespeare. I marveled at the double entendres, luxuriated in the language and understood the humor.  It made me believe I could operate in a world of books, it made me feel legit. Of course,  I came to realize and appreciate that some of the most well-read people, and definitely some of the most intelligent, do not have formal educations.

Anne of the Thousand Days by Maxwell Anderson – That same 8th grade year introduced me to the decadent world of the Tudors, political intrigue, murder, corruption, and told so much about the haves and have nots. This book was about discovery and adventure and betrayal and my own naivete. It shattered the myth of the happy ending.

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough – Also in junior high and the first time I was lost in a thick, epic novel meant for adults. I would rush to finish chores and homework so I could get back to Maggie and her priest. That a made-up story could evoke emotion and temporarily remove me from the everyday turned me into a reader.

It was ok to seek, to question, and that both could be done without yelling

The Shining by Stephen King – The first time I was scared to death by ink on paper. Thrilling, intoxicating, foreboding. One of my favorite Stephen King-isms is that writing and reading are like ESP between the author and the reader. The writer is having these thoughts and then making you, the reader, think about what he wrote. This still gives me chills.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis – The first time I saw logic and prose used to discuss something as ephemeral as spirituality. Far from convincing me to be a believer or a non-believer, it taught me that it was ok to seek, to question, and that both could be done without yelling and poster boards.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar  by Cheryl Strayed – Occasionally timing determines impact. This was a cold splash of water at the start of midlife. Life is hard, wah wah wah…GET UP AND DO SOMETHING.

That’s a lot to ask of a story and it made me careful never to dismiss fiction as mere entertainment.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. – Thoughts = Your Reality. My thought patterns were laid bare in this book and I was shocked. Can you say clueless? Less a self-help tome, this is more a call to arms about how we educate our children and perpetuate labels, especially on ourselves. We can substantially improve in anything with the proper mindset. I keep this in the bathroom in case I forget. I read it like I brush my teeth, in furious little bursts.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding – Another junior high influencer. Golding’s novel about boys inhumanity to one another showed me that a fictional tale could legitimately impact how I as a human interacted with other humans in the real world. The story of these castaways, their crimes, their fears, and their kindnesses, entertained, horrified and made me think. That’s a lot to ask of a story and it made me careful not to dismiss all fiction as mere entertainment; though I’m a big fan of reading for the fun of it.

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year by Anne Lamott– I’ve decided to give the last slot to the first book I read by Anne Lamott. I read this the first time lying on my side, with my post-partum belly lying next to me like a little puppy (to paraphrase from one of my favorite passages). Reading her words slayed me. They made me identify, which is the point of all stories. They taught me about voice. They comforted me. It’s a skinny book and it pulled its weight. Maybe more importantly, this book introduced me to Lamott whose other books were instrumental in claiming the title of writer for myself. For that reason, this edges out a gazillion other novels, memoirs, or self-help books I could have listed.

Books not only changed my life, they inform my parenting, they impact my marriage, they influence how I relate to my siblings and friends and coworkers.

So that’s my list this week. It’s heavy on adolescent touchstones and mid-life signposts. These floated to the surface when I pondered today. If you were to ask me again next week, most likely the list would change.

What’s on your list? Share your life-changing books (include why) and I’ll put your name in a drawing for one of the books listed above or in the comments! But you’ve only got this week to do it. Please feel free to share and encourage others to comment for their chance to win.

P.S. Dirty little secret: I’m not opposed to having To Kill a Mockingbird on anyone’s list. It’s just that I never had to read it in school and I can’t remember if I’ve ever actually read the whole thing! Whew, that feels better. Glad I got that off my chest.

6 Thoughts on “9 Books That Changed My Life – No, To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t on the List

  1. Barbara Armstrong on March 25, 2016 at 7:02 am said:

    My favorite book was, as you know, Gone with the wind! It was my Thornbirds” of the day for me. I rushed home from my blue collar job and was transported to my heritage, and sooo much more. I was learning about how strong a woman could be, how wrong it is to think of only yourself, romance, history, and so much more. All from a novel. You put it soooo well !!!! XOXOXO

  2. A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. It opened my inner eye, giving me the opportunity to see the reality of my life, not the fabrication I’d created.

  3. Wow, I love this. What great insights! Out of curiosity, have you reread any of these books (other than Mindset, which you mentioned)? Or was one reading enough?

    I think books inform most aspects of my life too. And I definitely agree that fiction is more than just entertainment. Making a list of special books is hard for me, though. I’m not sure why. Maybe because there are too many to remember. LOL. I’ll give this some thought, though!

    • Good question, Jennifer – Yes, I’ve re-read a few of them. Lord of the Flies was assigned to my children and I read along with them. The Shining I go back to every five or six years and just marvel at King’s ability to convey a mood, setting, personality quirk, etc. I’ve given away at least six copies of Tiny Beautiful Things to important people in my life. Just this weekend my son asked to borrow Mindset but I’ve made so many notes in my copy (plus it’s autographed by Dr. Dweck!) that I ran into a bookstore to pick up another for him.

      I agree it’s hard to narrow down the choices so I tend to pick what keeps floating to the surface and these all left indelible marks! Would love to hear yours 🙂

10 Ways to Ensure Your Christmas Letter is Used as Kindling

Christmas Letter Photo
Christmas Letter Photo

The most requested photo.

It’s that time of year again, time for the beloved tradition of the annual family Christmas* letter. These letters are often a chore to write and for many, to read. Last Christmas, my mother-in-law asked me if I was tired because the letter wasn’t as entertaining as usual. You can’t please everyone.

I skipped one year thinking no one would care, but we actually got phone calls and notes requesting one. I know, shocking, right?

This year, I will send our 23rd letter inside a traditional Christmas card along with a family photo.

Family 1993

For more than two decades, I’ve forced my family to pose in front of the tree or under a picturesque pine frosted in snow. It almost always ends in tears, mine or the kids. My husband cries on the inside.

Choosing a card is usually the first step and I’ve developed some unbreakable anal retentive habits. For example, I can’t buy a card with three snowmen on the cover (or three stockings, or two penguins) because there are four people in my family. It’s like I’m killing one of them off.

circa 1997

I’ve tried to order photo cards or pre-printed cards to save time, but when the holidays roll around, I can’t go through with it. My mother’s voice echoes in my head that at least once a year, everyone deserves a personal note or hand-written signature.

Below you will find 10 things I’ve tried to avoid doing in my letters. It’s personal preference of course, and along the way, I may have been guilty of one or two of the things on the list . . . but never more than two in one year!

10 Ways to Ensure Your Christmas Letter is Used as Kindling

  1. Start out with a complaint, you know, something original about the cold weather or how fast the year went by.
  2. Brag about your kids’ trophies or grades without acknowledging they’re on parole, slated for rehab, or at least halo-free.
  3. Share the cost, make and model of your new car, or other luxury purchase. Nothing says Peace on Earth like taking inventory of our stuff.
  4. Detail the exotic vacations you’ve enjoyed while we’ve been stuck at work. You didn’t take us with you. We do not care.
  5. Write it from the viewpoint of a family pet. Seriously. We dare you.
  6. Whine about how everyone starts celebrating too early. Because your timeline is universal and everyone should fall in line.
  7. Rub your busy holiday itinerary in the noses of the lonely and depressed. They need to know someone is more fortunate. You’re providing a service, really.
  8. Describe all the medical procedures undergone by you and your relatives. Include lots of squishy details about incisions and bodily fluids or anything in the hemorroidal area.
  9. Include lots of photos, at least 12, and make them tiny, so we need a microscope.
  10. Make it more than two pages long and single space it. Why wouldn’t we want to know more about your family than we do about our own?

10 Ways to Ensure Your Christmas Letter is Used as Kindling

One of the reasons I still do a letter is my husband loves it. He’s not what you’d describe as a touchy-feely guy, but the fact that he let me dress him up in long-johns for a Christmas photo tells you something.

I wanted to include some of the awful photos, the ones where you can tell someone has been crying but they reflect poorly on me. Do you still send cards? What about a letter? What’s the worst card or photo you received?


*Christmas is what my family and I celebrate so that’s what I write about. Feel free to substitute the word “holiday” or whatever holidays you and your loved ones celebrate.


6 Thoughts on “10 Ways to Ensure Your Christmas Letter is Used as Kindling

  1. Ha Ha Ha! This is cute. Love the red long johns! Now I’m all inspired to write a Christmas letter… keeping in mind your advice, of course. Thanks for sharing your tradition!

  2. LOVED this…hilarious. I remember our card drama. It was a drama or a farce. I had them dress up for “Christmas Around the World”. Each year a new country. The dog quit when she had to wear a sombrero. We also did pirates and American Gothic Christmas. The best pics were the outtakes. Sharing on FB

  3. This is awesome 🙂

Top 10 Tips for a Do-It-Yourself Retreat


Sawyer Writing Collective - Warren Dunes, MI

Google “Retreats” and you’ll find price tags ranging from $499 for a budget plan to the $3,000 range for deluxe accommodations. Excluding travel costs. If you need to get away on a budget and aren’t looking for a guru or instructor, try a DIY Retreat.

A weekend away with acquaintances who share a common goal can be more regenerative and productive than a best girlfriend getaway. Whether you’re in need of a yoga/fitness intensive, a relaxing spa experience, or a creative workshop weekend, you can save a ton of cash by planning your own.

Last month, I spent a perfect weekend with two fellow writers I met in a novel workshop. Elaine, Puja, and I shared a rented cottage on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan for 2 ½ days and spent an average of $106 each (excluding food).

Suzanne Brazil DIY Retreat

By the time we packed up for the late Sunday drive home, we’d already decided on a name for our group and plans to squeeze in another retreat before year-end.

Here are our Top 10 Tips for a Perfect DIY Retreat:

Once you’ve agreed on a date, schedule a meeting to decide the following and then confirm one way to communicate, email, text, Facebook, etc.

#1 Communicate vision or goals: Each attendee should be up front about what they want out of the time away. For example:  I want to walk outside and would love company; I want to hole up in my room and not come out unless I’m hungry; I’d love to share ideas.

As writers, we all craved uninterrupted writing time for our current works in progress. We originally decided on a group sharing for our second night. As Saturday approached, we were all making progress and wanted to stay focused on writing, so we cancelled the reading.

Lake Michigan Dunes, Sawyer, Michigan

#2 Decide on a budget: Be honest! The idea is to save money by arranging a DIY retreat, don’t lose sight of your spending limits. Your budget will likely determine the distance you’re willing to travel and preferred locations.

We chose the Harbor Country area near the Indiana/Michigan border. We divided the original cost of an available house by five people (the original number interested in going). We ended up with three writers and stayed within our budget, we just downsized the house.

Sawyer Writing Collective Writers' Retreat

#3 Book your lodging: One person arranges, collects the money, acts as liaison for booking, etc. For their trouble, they get first choice of room or the master. Alternatively, agree on sharing the researching duties and draw straws for the top spot.

Elaine emailed us with a few choices from the Airbnb website. We voted, Elaine booked, and we paid her via PayPal or personal check.

#4 Confirm meal arrangements: Plan on at least one communal meal. Depending on your location, you may decide to venture into town for one or more meals. As for groceries, everyone bring what they want but be willing to share. Label if it makes it easier, confirm what’s off limits and what’s open season.

We originally agreed on grilling Friday night and dining in town on Saturday. We brought our own entrees, shared salads and enjoyed a great meal. The next night, only two of us went out because the other writer was on a roll with her project. It worked!

#5 Discuss sleep schedules: Is one of you a late riser who needs morning quiet? Are you a confirmed snorer? Bring ear plugs and respect everyone’s preferences.

I was up early, Elaine had to have 8 hours, and Puja was at the mercy of her dog’s schedule.  First one up agreed to get the coffee brewing.

Warren Dunes, Lake Michigan

#6 Discuss bathroom arrangements: Know the quirks of your home for the weekend. Agree on a schedule if necessary.

As first one up, I showered while the others slept which gave the hot water tank time to refill (per our hosts’ instructions).

#7 Discuss house rules: Do you have smokers in your group? Pets? What about TV and Music? If you aim to be as courteous as possible, the others will reciprocate. Aim for inclusion, consideration, and respect for privacy.

We all traveled with earbuds and our laptops, went TV-free, and kept conversation to a minimum unless we were all on a break together. Elaine and I accompanied Puja when she had to walk her dog late at night. Puja knew I was skittish around dogs so made sure to sleep with the door closed and the puppy safe inside.

#8 Mark the opening and closing of your retreat: Don’t run off to unpack in your rooms the minute you arrive. Take a moment to toast the time you’ve carved out of your overstuffed lives and maybe even write down what your goals were when you booked. Post this somewhere in the common area so you’re all reminded why you’re there.

Elaine wanted to reach 10,000 words on her rough draft. Puja wanted to incorporate the various pieces of her project into one coherent document, and I wanted to revise chapters 1-5. We wrote this on a piece of paper and kept it out on the dining room table.

Sawyer Writing Collective - Goals

#9 Exchange something: Going away with others offers something a solo retreat does not, the opportunity to learn, interact, and share energy for a common interest. Think of one thing each of you can contribute: i.e., a new pose, a healthy recipe, an inspiring quote, a book recommendation, or a playlist geared toward your activity.

One of the benefits of having a hive mind is the serendipitous ideas and tips that arise. Be open to bumping into someone in the hallway and trying out an idea. Consider sharing a trinket of some kind to mark the occasion, it adds a little something. I had a variety pack of three notebooks with fun sayings on the cover. Cost? Less than $4

Writing Retreat, Sawyer, Michigan

#10 Evaluate Post-Retreat: Agree on follow-up questions ahead of time. Would you return to the same location or prefer someplace new? How did the meals work out? Did your group share great chemistry? Would you want to add or subtract attendees next time?

We each reached our goals and gave our retreat 5 Stars!

The Sawyer Writing Collective’s second retreat is scheduled for next month and I can’t wait. Our cost this time is only $86. T-Shirts are in the works, and we’re considering new members.

Books on Sawyer Writing Collective Writing Retreat

We came away with new books to read, interesting angles on our stories, and a deeper camaraderie around our passion: writing.

Have you been itching to get away? What would you like to accomplish or focus on in the last quarter of 2015 or the start of 2016? Why not find a yoga partner, classmate or acquaintance with similar interests and suggest a DIY retreat? If you follow the steps above, you’ll have a blast, and return to your regular lives refreshed, energized, and with cash to spare. Don’t you deserve it?

You can read more about my first retreat experience here.

Elaine Richards has an MBA, and a degree in journalism from USC. She is at work on her first novel. Connect with her on Twitter @Elaine_yr

Puja Mojindra is a graduate of the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.)’s MFA Acting program and is currently at work adapting her one-woman play, A Great Dive, into a novel. Follow her on Twitter @PujaMohindra







6 Thoughts on “Top 10 Tips for a Do-It-Yourself Retreat

  1. colleen on October 14, 2015 at 12:38 pm said:

    Great post, Suzanne! So glad you got to get away. So important to do. :O)

  2. My friends do this often just for getaways – I don’t know why I never thought of doing this for writing!

  3. Hello Suzanne, I’m revisiting this piece in advance of a retreat coming up in April. I’ve read several build-your-own retreat articles and your’s is still one of the best. Simple, thoughtful and obviously written by a writer who’s been there. Thanks again.

11 Things Writers Should Never Say (to other writers or humans, in person or on social media)

11 Things Writers Should Never Say

11 Things Writers Should Never Say

(1)  Writing is hard

Yes, but to misquote Cheryl Strayed, it’s not coal mining, it’s not sewer repair, it’s not wrangling live tigers (though sometimes you want to claw your own face off).

(2)  Buy my book

Ugh. Just ugh.

(3)  I don’t have enough time to finish my ___ (insert work in progress)

Yes. Yes you do. Single mothers with three jobs have written books. Medical students who haven’t slept in 137 days have written novels. Stop lying and finish already.

(4) I self-publish and do all my own editing

Why would you do that? Why? WHY? Unless your best friend from childhood is an editor willing to review your work for free, do not self-publish a thing if you do not secure the services of a professional editor. You will embarrass your mother, you will waste your time, you will ruin your credibility.

(5)  I don’t read – or any variation of this statement

Imagine an actor who doesn’t have time to watch movies, plays, or TV. Imagine an oceanographer who refuses to leave Kansas, or a trail guide with agoraphobia. Ridiculous, right? You have time to read. You make time to read. You read. Go to the library right now, for God’s sake.

(6)  Review me on Amazon, even if you haven’t read my book

No, no I will not.

11 Things Writers Should Never Say

(7) Buy my book

See #2

(8) I dream of being published (while not submitting)

Good luck with that.

(9) “Chick-lit”   or    “Women’s fiction”

Or any other gender-damning, soul-skewering, pigeon-holing phrase when used in the context of literary snobbery, including but not limited to: I only read literary fiction; Memoir is just journaling; Uttering the word romance with your nostrils flared as if sniffing dog poop. It’s not nice.

(10) Rejection is so hard

Yep. And? Stop being a baby.

(11) I don’t drink coffee

While this may be true, it’s enough to get you kicked out of the tribe or at least ostracized. Lie. Carry around a Starbucks cup filled with water if you have to. You’re ruining the mystique! Tea is acceptable, if you’re British, but just barely.

(12) Buy my book

*Bonus reminder, no charge, you’re welcome.

14 Thoughts on “11 Things Writers Should Never Say (to other writers or humans, in person or on social media)

  1. Very amusing, and a timely reminder, Suzy B! I also hate the ‘Chick-lit’ label, and absolutely refuse to use it. Good fiction is good fiction, and that’s all. Men aren’t banned from reading works from women authors, so why pidgeon hole it as ‘women’s fiction?’ We’ll be having ‘Menopausal fiction’, and ‘Mummy fiction’ next! And I for one, will be reading THAT!! Lol.

    P.S. How many copies shall I put you down for?? 😉

    Hedgey x

  2. Damn! Thought I was posting from Hedgeblog Times. Whoops! I just may have blown my cover! Shhhh…. 😉

  3. HaHAHA! I loved this and soooo true except you could never embarrass your mother!!!!

  4. I have writer’s block. Really? What if your plumber said “gaaah, I have plumber’s block.” Suck it up, buttercup.


  6. Yep yep and yep 🙂

  7. I still hate coffee! 😉

#Top10Tuesday: 10 Ways to “Think Big” for Writers

10 Think Big Tasks for Writers

10 Think Big Tasks for Writers

“Your playing small does not serve the world.” ~ Marianne Williamson

10 “Think Big” Tasks for Today

  1. Act as if –Don’t already have a cover of your WIP? Why not? Today’s the day. Make a “coming soon” mock-up and post it on your blog or FB. Already published? Envision and document your dream review or interview.
  2. Tell 3 people you’re a writer – Go On! Don’t be shy. What do you care what they think? They may want to hire you, interview you, mentor you, BE you! You might just inspire someone else.
  3. Order business cards. Now! Pick a font, include your email and social media info. Pass them out like it’s a real job. Or change your title on your resume, FB page, blog, etc.
  4. SUBMIT something…anything…anywhere. You don’t want to make a habit of submitting unpolished things but try poking a hole in the dam, prime the pump, get the juices flowing. Choose your cliche!
  5. Create a tracking sheet for your rejections and set an ambitious goal to be rejected at least 52 times—1 for each week this year. Crying is fine as long as you keep clicking “submit.”
  6. Contact an author you admire through Email, Twitter, or FB message. Don’t send suggestive photos, that just embarrasses everyone. Send a thanks or a compliment. Many will engage and we all love a pat on the back.
  7. Learn one new craft thing and then share it with someone else. Best tip you’ve heard all day? Who doesn’t want to know what that is?
  8. Envision the most “writerly” of locations, instruments, outfits and use them all at once. If you’ve dreamed of writing on a rock by a pond wearing a sweater with leather patches on the sleeves, get thee to a thrift store! Pick out an old sweater, grab a fountain pen and perch yourself on a rock. Congratulations—you now LOOK the part but you still have to write something…anything!
  9. Write a review of the best book you’ve read this year and post it everywhere. Put good energy out into the universe.
  10. Share your successes in the comments below (thinking positive is also a ‘think big’ action). Lather, Rinse, Repeat!

“Vision is not enough, it must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps, we must step up the stairs.” ~ Vaclav Havel


2 Thoughts on “#Top10Tuesday: 10 Ways to “Think Big” for Writers

  1. Hey, Suzanne. Somehow I found my way to this post from last year… Call it serendipity. 🙂 Anyway, it struck me as something worth remembering. This could definitely be a “pinned post” if there is such a thing. So much inspiration here!