Saturday, April 5, 2014

Mildred & Peter

     The gifted Harlem Renaissance writer, Zora Neale Hurston once remarked that the worst thing is to have a story and not be able to tell it.

     Peter Breyer, a health care professional and son of German immigrants has a story to tell and he came to the Write Stuff Conference in Allentown, PA on a recent Saturday, looking for help to get that story into the hands of readers.   Peter's wife, Mildred, shared this with me after I spotted her reading in the conference hotel lobby and out of curiosity interrupted to find out what was on her Kindle. The Dovekeepers, she told me and in no time we were talking about her husband and his story. "You see, Peter spent most of his life thinking he was an only child."
     But then one day, out-of-the blue, Peter's sense of family and of himself changed.  Dramatically.  He was not an only child.  He had a sister.  His father's daughter with his first wife. By the time Peter's mother, his father's second wife, broke the silence about the other child, Alzheimers had begun stealing her memory. She could give him no details, only the suggestion of a name.  But that was enough to send Peter searching for his sister and digging into the past of  his long-deceased father.
     "Peter always felt that there was something standing between him and his father," Mildred continued, describing the gulf that closed for Peter as new revelations led him to a deeper understanding of  his  father's struggles and estrangements amid the horrors of Nazi Germany.  Peter worked on his story for years.  He visited aged immigrant friends of both his parents.  He tried  anything that might let him feel what life was like for his father during and after the war.  He took a crash course in German  so that in case he ever found his sister he could speak to her in that language.
    I imagine  Mildred knows Peter's story in every detail.  She has probably heard every word of it many times, through every draft of the writing.   "This happens every time, I talk about it," she said and  brushed tears away as she recalled one of her husband's visits to his father's grave-site.  Peter has turned his story into a book.  "And he came to this conference to see if he could interest an agent in it," Mildred said.  I asked if she was  also a writer.   No, she was quick to answer, only Peter is.
     When he joined  Mildred and me right after his agent interview, we exchanged contact information. I was still thinking about the New Jersey couple a few days later when I found in my mailbox a copy of Peter's book:  My Sister  A Journey to Myself.
     The Zora Neale Hurston quote begins the preface to Peter's book.  If as Hurston says, not being able to tell our story is the worst thing, then maybe the best thing as writers  is to be blessed with our own  Mildred (or Milton),  someone who has our back, who not only listens to the words but hears what we may be desperately struggling to say, someone who is honest yet mindful, never hurtful in critiquing our efforts.  Someone who will share our journey no matter how many writers' conferences and agent meetings it takes.
     With  luck and plenty of perseverance, Peter will find the right agent and his book will find its readers.  His story of a secret sibling certainly sparked my imagination as a writer and a reader.  It had me turning over in my mind  that  tantalizing two-word question that can get any writer's juices flowing:  "What if?....".

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Rethinking Role Model

Melba Tolliver: Life lessons from LeBron

By Melba Tolliver 
The Miami Heat's LeBron James (6) takes a break against the San Antonio Spurs during the second half in Game 7 of the NBA basketball championship, Thursday, June 20, 2013, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Say “role model” and the mind’s eye pictures a young person looking to be like an older person at the top of their game. I held this conventional view before I fell into role model reversal mode thanks to basketball phenom LeBron James. His MVP performance against Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals completed my conversion. And at age 75, old enough to be James’ great-granny, I’m wanting to emulate him.
So what is it about this 28-year-old that wins my admiration? For starters, his passion, perseverance and practice. After he and his Miami Heat took a 113-77 shellacking by the Spurs, did LeBron make excuses for a poor performance? No, he laced up those sneakers and worked on his jumper.
I’m old enough and experienced enough to know the trio of Ps is fundamental to success whether trying to make it in basketball or broadcasting, the field I backed into decades before LeBron was born.
Like LeBron, I grew up in Akron. Unlike him, nobody called me names when I left town after high school in 1956 to study nursing at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. Twenty years later, the ABC News brass, faced with a walkout by on-air folks drafted me, then a secretary, to pinch hit for a striking anchorwoman. And ta-dah — I became the accidental anchorwoman, and had a 30-year career, first as a general assignment reporter, morning show host along the way and, finally, anchorwoman, again, for real.
For too long in my broadcasting career, I resisted practice; watching films of myself (yep, we shot 16mm film back then) or reading scripts in front of a mirror was for egomanics, not reporters. Or so I thought. It took a while to accept the performance (read: show biz) aspects of TV reporting.
“I’ve been shooting layups since I was 8 years old,” LeBron has said more than once in those post-game press conferences after one of his sterling performances. We’re lucky, if like him, we discover our passion early. In my case, I never dreamed as a little black girl that my interest in people and wanting to hear their stories evidenced a passion for reporting.
I’ve learned on my own and LeBron shows it to be true: Passion, perseverance and practice are pieces of the whole. Building muscle in one strengthens the others.
Then there is LeBron’s team play. Again I learn from him. He distributes the ball to his teammates despite the chorus of critics who praise his “unselfish” play if the Heat win and fault him as “not aggressive enough” if they lose. Meanwhile, a confident LeBron keeps on passing to D Wade, Ray Allen and the rest. Me, I’d be tempted to tell the Monday morning quarterbacks to “bug off” or worse. Now, when habitual naysayers offer unsolicited advice, I’m trying to stop and think: “What would LeBron do?”
Given James’ youth and the constant scrutiny of him and his game, I marvel at his composure and tough skin.
He certainly needed both to withstand the barrage of invective and name-calling — some of it incited by the media — and the threats from fans who gleefully set his No. 23 jerseys on fire in 2009 after he announced The Decision. You would have thought that by exercising his free-agent option and taking his talents to South Beach, LeBron not only left the Cavaliers, but joined the Taliban.
It takes courage to think independently, to stand up to the world. Of course, it helps to have the support of people who see something special in you and nurture it through our adolescence. It’s that village people speak of, what LeBron had in his grandmother’s home and among the folks who looked out for him in and outside the classrooms and gym of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School.
In this age of rushing on to the next big thing, I’m impressed when LeBron talks about being present in the present. D Wade, too, in his turn at the podium after the Finals victory elaborated on this bit of wisdom: All we ever have is this moment, free of the glory (or the anguish) of the past or the future.
Before and after the champagne dousings, LeBron spoke proudly of his journey, “I’m from Akron, Ohio, and I’m not even supposed to be here,” reminding me that where you come from — single parent, low-income household, tough part of town — the physical place counts. But there’s also the space cleared by people who came before. Remembering includes replenishing those roots, building a gym or hosting a bike-a-thon, doing whatever we’re able, when and where we can, smoothing the way for those who follow us — both literally and figuratively.
So, thanks, LeBron, for showing me you don’t have to be perfect or old to be a role model.
Tolliver is a writer living in Bangor, Pa. She can be reached through her She blogs at

Stepping Into A New Role


Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group offers support, networking to local writers

greater lehigh valley writers group member talk
Fiction writer and GLVWG member Phil Giunta, left, discusses writing with Webmaster Bart Palamaro, President Melba Tolliver and other members July 20 at a brunch hosted by Friends of the Bangor Library at Bangor Public Library. (Express-Times Photo | Stephen Flood)
Jenelle JanciBy Jenelle Janci 
on July 27, 2013 at 6:06 AM, updated July 29, 2013 at 3:33 PM
Above the desk of Melba Tolliver, president of Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group, a mantra is displayed: “The first draft is only the beginning.”
Tolliver’s choice of home office decoration is a reflection of her group’s purpose. GLVWG acts as a support network and provides resources such as lectures, workshops and critique groups to writers of all levels. The group began in 1993, with only five writers meeting in a living room. GLVWG now has 161 members.
Tolliver, who became president in June, worked as a broadcast journalist for nearly 30 years, having worked at WABC-TV, WNBC-TV, News 12 Long Island. After permanently living in Lower Mount Bethel Township for nearly a decade, she says her friend, the late playwright and author Bill Marley, convinced her to check out GLVWG’s annual Write Stuff Conference.
“I was so enthralled by it, that I started my blog and my first post was about (The Write Stuff Conference),” Tolliver says.
The Write Stuff Conference, held every March, is GLVWG’s biggest event of the year. It features specialized workshops, speakers and networking opportunities. Tolliver says many GLVWG members have connected with their agents and editors at the conference.
Now the group’s leader, Tolliver hopes to give a new life to the nonprofit organization.
“I would like to see the group be very bold in what we do,” she says. “I’d like us (the board members) as a core group to really be thinking in terms of doing things not because this is the way we always did it, but how can we really refresh and renew what we’re doing and our mission, and get the membership really excited about it.”
GLVWG, pronounced “gliv-wig” by its members, hosts a monthly Writers Cafe event open to the public at Barnes and Noble in Bethlehem Township’s Southmont Center. The writer’s cafe, hosted by GLVWG’s webmaster Bart Palamaro, is a one-hour talk followed by the opportunity for attendees to share and receive feedback on their work.
“It’s a range of people, people who have been published and people who are just starting out and everything in between at the cafes,” Tolliver says. The genres covered by the group’s members vary, including young adult, paranormal, romance, children’s books, memoir and fan fiction.
John Evans, published author, former Lopatcong Township teacher and former GLVWG president, says he loves attending the Writers Cafe events.
“I find it more beneficial to me sometimes than the actual meetings because it’s a free-flowing dialogue about writing,” he says.
While it can be intimidating for some writers to open themselves to criticism, Tolliver says attitude is key.
“Just remember you’re unique,” Tolliver says. “Nobody can speak with your voice, nobody can tell your experience your way. No matter what you write, you’re the only one who can really write that. You have to have that kind of confidence.”
However, Evans says writers shouldn’t share their work with expectations of only praise.
“When you realize why that's not why you present your work to a bunch of writers -- not for their approval, but for their critiques -- you realize they’re actually doing you a huge favor,” he says.
When Evans first joined GLVWG, he says he was facing repeated rejection from publishers about his non-fiction on Mark Twain. When a fellow member suggested he start pitching it to academic publishers, he says his luck began to change.
“That was just one instance where people knew more than I did, and it helped out in so many different ways,” he says.
Tolliver herself finds benefit in GLVWG’s critique groups. She’s shared excerpts from her upcoming memoir, “Accidental Anchorwoman” and connected with members who provide her feedback. Tolliver says the support offered by GLVWG extends into hard times, showing a tri-board display she and member Monica Dietrich made in honor of Marley when he passed. She says the support GLVWG offers goes beyond a pat on the back when things go right.
“When we say we’re a support group for writers, it’s not just saying in an email, ‘Oh, I just got a contract at XYZ’ and for us to say, ‘Oh awesome, great for you, keep on.’ That’s not the only kind of support. We can support each other just by sharing what the writing life is like.”
The organization is always expanding with writers looking for these types of support. Megan McKnight, of Plainfield Township, says she joined the group last January before even attending a meeting to secure membership before the Write Stuff conference.
“I think without joining, it would still be a far-out distant dream of getting published,” McKnight says. “I think it's going to help me on my way.”
At 26, McKnight is notably younger than many of her fellow GLVWG members. However, she finds benefit in this.
“I feel like they’ve been in my shoes before and they can offer advice and support on how to get a good start.”
Evans, who faced difficulties getting published himself, says GLVWG is the perfect place to do this.
“The path to publication is filled with stumbling rocks,” he says. “(GLVWG) is a way of shortcutting all those potential setbacks you may face.”
For more information, visit

Friday, March 22, 2013


Barbara Rick, me, and Deborah Santana
photo courtesy of Out of the Blue Films, Inc.

A recent screening of two beautiful and heartwarming documentaries  got me thinking that history is made by everyday people and not just the boldface names whose stories get re-told--and rightfully so--- during the various history month celebrations.    By everyday people I mean folks who tie their passions to positive action and make things happen just because that's who they are, what they do, every day. Barbara Rick and Deborah Santana are two such  women, making history if not headlines.  Barbara is the award-winning filmmaker and Deborah the executive producer of Girls of Daraja and School of My Dreams. They document what can happen when grownups put their heads together and find resources to provide free secondary schooling for girls who would otherwise be left out, given little or no chance to fulfill their enormous potential.  The girls are Kenyan, they come from two dozen different tribes to board and learn at Daraja Academy. Barbara and Deborah allow us to look into the eyes, the smiling, sometimes serious faces of the young girls, hear them speak,  and imagine lawyers, doctors, teachers, prime ministers, maybe the successor to Kenya's Wangari Maathi, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner and environmental get the picture.  Or you will when you see these films. Catch them if you can.  More screenings are scheduled for NYC and around the country.  I saw them as part of Michelle Materre's Creatively Speaking film series at MIST Harlem. Materre is another history-maker. That story for another time.    

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

History On Stage and Off


                 The 3R's---Race, Radicalism and Romance.  It's all there in Dr. DuBois and Miss Ovington. 
I watched this two character drama at the Castillo Theatre in Manhattan on Sunday on the cusp of Black History and Women's History Months.  A black man, educator, human rights activist. And a white woman, Unitarian, granddaughter of abolitionists.  The setting is the office of The Crisis magazine, publication of the NAACP which DuBois and Ovington helped found. The year is 1915.
            Like two boxers, using words not fists, they jab and counter-punch, engage in two fights in one arena.  They are political radicals, partners fighting for equal rights for all. It is the second more complex fight that puts them at odds. DuBois created The Crisis and insists that he alone should run it, or he will resign.  Ovington, ardent admirer of DuBois, understands his resistance---a black man unwilling to answer to white superiors---yet she argues for compromise.  Heat smolders between the two firebrands, but never goes beyond mild flirting. DuBois remains at The Crisis, for now.
           Director, Gabrielle L. Kurlander and veteran Broadway actors, Peter jay Fernandez and Kathleen Chalfant make the most of playwright Clare Coss's innovative work.

      Laura Blackburne, former NYS Supreme Court judge and The Crisis current publisher joined Woodie King, Jr, Black History Month Play Festival producer in a post-performance discussion.

  Agnes Green, of WCBS Newradio 88, back in the day, and in the audience on Sunday, reminded me of some work we did together.  Serving on the New York Association of Black Journalists (NYABJ) Media Watch Committee, with ABC News' Eric Tait, we created a local media bias survey that saw some light at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn.  Maybe 1993? or '94?  There must be a report buried in a file somewhere.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Gift of Time

     It took my friend and fellow writer, Bill Marley, 17 years to write 21 Yerger Street, his first novel. Hearing that made me think about the gift of time.

     And it made me pause when reading a profile of Junot Diaz, and learning that after his debut story collection, Diaz didn't produce another book for a dozen years.  That book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was his Pulitzer prize-winning first novel.  Then there is journalist, Isabel Wilkerson, one of my heroes.  The Warmth of Other Suns is her non-fiction masterwork.  Last summer Wilkerson told a sold out audience at the Schomburg Library in Harlem, "If my book had been a person, it would have been a teenager by the time it reached readers."
     It's inspiring to know these authors kept going as time came and went.  For me, their books, each in its own way, shed more light on the struggle to fit in in America, to find one's place in the world.
    Wilkerson's book is a brilliant account of The Great Migration from 1915 to 1970 when six million black Southerners fled a crushing Jim Crow caste system, seeking better lives "up north."
   Diaz's hero, Oscar, is a Dominican Republic-born, nerdy fat kid and writer wannabe, burdened with a curse, searching for love and stumbling through life in, among other places, Paterson, New Jersey.
    Bill Marley's white teen-aged protagonist lives in Depression-era Mississippi where he watches the people next door and learns things that rock his world, things that would shock his upright unsuspecting family.
    I've heard all three authors in public readings of their work.  Bill Marley sat down with me for an interview about his writing life.
    Marley started writing his novel in the first of four summer novel-writing workshops at the University of Iowa.  "It was a writing community, more bookstores than TV antennas," he says.

   We are  in the Innavore art gallery space on the ground floor of Marley's home in Pennsylvania.  And as he recalls those Iowa days, his face softens, his eyes light up and he is transported back to where the long gestation of his book began.
   Marley describes how each summer he climbed into his car, loaded a books-on-tape version of Hero of a Thousand Faces, narrated by Joseph Campbell himself, into his cassette player and headed west.  One thousand, one hundred and thirty miles later he arrived in Iowa City.  "It was heaven, just great," Marley says of the idyllic hours spent in a community of writers---novices as well as seasoned authors---working on craft and learning from one another's work.  "I would still be there if it was still going," he says.  But times changed and the Elderhostel program that sponsored the workshops fell by the wayside.
     Gone was Marley's writing family, his circle of careful listeners.  And though Marley was sad and disappointed, he was grateful to walk away from the last workshop with two good things: A completed first draft of his budding novel and  "a note from the instructor wishing me well."
     Back home, Marley tucked the draft---and the note---away.  "I put it in a drawer and it sat there while I was working on plays."  Marley was an established playwright and lyricist back east, and a cabaret performer who founded his own theatre, Hauska House, In Pennsylvania's Pocono mountain resort area.
     Performing kept Marley busy while the first draft of his novel slumbered on, until a friend invited him to join the Greater Lehigh Valley Writer's Group, and that stirred something in him.  "The guilt trip that the novel was still there in my computer."  Marley accepted his friend's invitation, started meeting regularly with a critique group and slowly breathed new life into his novel.
     Two main characters draw readers into 21 Yerger Street.   One of them is 14 year old Tom, curious, watchful and naive.  Like Tom, Marley grew up in Mississippi and when I ask if his debut novel is autobiographical he replies, not missing a beat, "Very definitely.  You write what you know and I know my childhood.  The difference is the story is all fiction, but the young boy is through my eyes."  In other words all the goings on at 21 Yerger Street once the new tenants move in is completely made up.  Though, again like Tom,  Marley did live next door to a house that stood empty for awhile.  "So I peopled it," he says, grinning with the pride and satisfaction of a true fiction writer.  The neighbors Marley gives to Tom expose the boy to worlds deeply foreign to his genteel middle class upbringing.  By story's end Tom is changed, wise beyond his 14 years and knowing secrets he may never share.
     When I compliment Marley on the cinematic quality of his storytelling, especially a scene in the end, he says, "I just imagined I was there and what I would see."
     Marley self-published his novel and in September he held a proof copy of it in his hands for the first time.  "I really was just 'Wow!' God this is beautiful."
     In time, everything changes, even publishing.  What was once traditional in the book industry is being undone and rearranged by technology and the explosion of social media.  Who dreamed 17 years ago that indie publishing would demand respect?  That writers like Marley would get new opportunities to put their work before readers?  That in a world flooded with "content" authors would be challenged to put on the hats of marketers and entrepreneurs in order make themselves known?
     Marley says the e-book and print version sales of 21 Yerger Street are going well, locally. And though his first royalty check might just about cover the cost of a modest dinner out, Marley's hopes are high that there will be many more readers and more royalties.  for both print and e-books
and e-books on all platforms


Sunday, June 3, 2012

Lipstick on the Queen (repost from2009)


Was this a faux pas or simply the friendly gesture of one young woman toward a much older one?
I'm talking about America's First Lady, Michelle Obama, putting an arm around the back of Britain's Queen Elizabeth . It happened when eager photographers snapped the two women together at a reception after the Obama's visit with the British monarch and her husband. The couple's Buckingham Castle stop was on President Obama's G20 economic summit itinerary.

To hear CNN and other news media tell it tonight, Michelle Obama committed a newsworthy no-no by laying an arm and hand on the queenly back. It's considered out of line for a mere mortal to touch the occupant of the British throne, no matter how well-meaning the gesture. Never mind that the 6-foot Mrs. Obama could have been feeling a bit of compassion for the tiny Highness. Think about it. The Queen's been stuck in the same job for almost 60 years, has to wear white gloves most of the time and constantly carry a pocketbook (what could she possibly have in it?) even while meeting people in her own castle! Worse than all that, the Queen looks to have become the incredile shrinking woman. Although, next to the Obama's, both of the royals look...well, Lilliputian.
Which just goes to show that nature runs its course no matter what titles we humans bestow on one another. Queen, King, first lady, or president---we all grow old and shrink over time. Underneath all the titles, the pomp and circumstance, we are all only human, subject to human frailty.
In 1965, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip paid a visit to Trinidad, a former colony. It just so happened that I was there, too, on my honeymoon in Port-of-Spain. Because my then-husband's aunt held a high post in the Trinidadian equivalent of the US Veteran's Administration, he and I got to stand among the veterans to be reviewed by the royals in a local park.

As the designated hour arrived, several dozen neatly uniformed schoolchildren standing just outside the park and holding miniature flags of both countries began waving them. In the waiting crowd a wave of sound built to a roar that continued to swell as the royal entourage approached in their gleaming black Rolls Royces, pulled up and came to a stop. Out stepped, what I could only guess were the Queen's ladies-in-waiting and her consort's aides, and the monarchs themselve. Inside the park, the Queen, trailed by Prince Phillip passed slowly down the line of elderly WW11 veterans. The old gents bowed as the royals passed. But I, ever the curious reporter, decided at the last minute to continue unbowed in order to get a close up look at a real queen. What I remember most about her, was the downy fuzz of hair on her forearms, her pale complexion, her immaculate white gloves, a pocketbook hanging from one royal wrist, and her smile, especially her smile. I will always remember her smile because there on one of her front teeth was a very noticeable smear of bright red lipstick!
That dab of wandered off lipstick showed me that all of us, even queens with ladies-in-waiting, will have our off days.