Book Review: You Are a Writer by Jeff Goins

Normally I don’t review books that aren’t directly related to Louisa May Alcott. However, in a sense, You Are a Writer (So Start ACTING Like One) by Jeff Goins is related. Here’s why.


I started blogging because I was in love with Louisa May Alcott and I wanted to meet other enthusiasts. I wrote because it was a means of communicating that love. And in the process of communicating my love, I fell in love with the tool, her tool – writing.

What’s Jeff Goins got to do with Louisa?

Jeff Goins is a writer. He writes one of my favorite blogs, Jeff Goins, Writer and has taught me ways to improve this blog. But the most important thing he has done is help me say the following: I am a writer.

Making the admission

Getting to the point of admitting this fact was difficult. I felt like a poser. I wasn’t a writer. Heck, I couldn’t even call myself a reader until recently because I hadn’t read at all until two years ago.
And here I was writing about a prolific writer, an author who had written a timeless classic. I was putting myself out there commenting and analyzing when I had no credentials. I wasn’t a scholar. I wasn’t a reader. I wasn’t a writer.
Then I met Jeff Goins. And now, even though I’m still not a scholar, I am a reader, and I am a writer. And my love of Louisa which drives me each day to read, probe and question, makes me qualified to comment and analyze.
You, the readers, have been tremendously supportive with your comments and we’ve had lively discussions along the way. I look forward to many more.

Book review

This post is a roundabout way of reviewing Jeff Goin’s new book, You Are a Writer (So Start ACTING Like One).
  • Any book that drives me to my computer to write when I know it’s going to make me late for work is a treasure.
  • Any book that gets me to set my alarm to an earlier time so that I will not make myself late for work with my writing is a treasure.
  • Any book that stokes the fire is a treasure.
You Are a Writer is such a treasure.

The purpose of You Are a Writer

The premise of this book is that once you claim your vocation as a writer, you can choose where to go with your writing. First, you have to choose yourself.
He maintains the necessity to write for yourself, to write because you love it. If you love it, your passion will attract readers and eventually, publishers. It will give you the strength necessary to get your work out to the world.
His justification for writing for yourself? There are people out there waiting for your ideas.

A motivational book …

The first part of You Are a Writer is motivational. It stoked my fire so much that I spent three hours furiously making a record of my ideas. They came tumbling out of me as I drove to work such that I had to leave myself 8 voice messages to make sure I had a record of them. Then I spent 2 hours writing them down.

… and a practical book

The second part is practical. While Goins covers the traditional aspects of trying to get published (working with editors, making the pitch, etc.), he introduces new ideas that get you, the writer, behind the steering wheel. He gives examples from his own success to back up these ideas. The challenge is allowing yourself to think outside the box.

Proof that it works

Much of what Goins recommended are things I have done instinctively over the years as a blogger and former e-magazine publisher and I can testify from my own experience that they do work.

Universal application

The general thrust of these ideas have a universal application, applying to anything you want to achieve in this life, creative or not. It comes down to living authentically, tenaciously, passionately, persistently.

The verdict?

A book that can make me get up willingly at 5:30 every morning to read and write is a good book! 5 stars.
You Are a Writer is available in ebook format from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Visit the website for more information.

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Need a reason to follow Louisa on Twitter? How about 5?

Molly Lieber in Katie Workum's Fruitlands. Photo: Christopher Duggan from Deborah Jowitt's Dance Beat

Not following Louisa May Alcott is My Passion on Twitter? You’re missing some great links to fascinating stories. Here’s a sample of today’s tweets:

  • 10-minute Podcast on Old-Fashioned Girl: “Louisa May Alcott and An Old-Fashioned Girl – Five American Women and Work”
  • One man’s personal journey through his family history produces Civil War book – his relative may have met Louisa at Union Hospital
  • Learning to be Jo March w/out the benefit of having read Little Women. Cool story!
  • A dance performance based on Fruitlands? You bet! “The Flick of a Skirt Can Speak Louder Than Words”
  • More on the Fruitlands dance – very interesting!

Normally you can only see these links via Twitter – come and join us! And let’s tweet each other. 🙂 Louisa May Alcott is My Passion on Twitter

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Enter the head of a Pulizter-prize winning author for 1 minute

A brief and fascinating look into the head of John Matteson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father (2007) as he answers a question about his way of writing and researching (I think he’s quite cute too – you’ll see why at the end. :-))

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Take 5 minutes to enjoy Little Women Wynona-style

I found this video via Suck My Alcott – Six snarky chicks who dig Louisa Maythe 1994 version of Little Women condensed into under 5 minutes (with music by Savage Garden – used to love those guys!).

It’s cool, raw and rainy today but for about 5 minutes, it got warm and cozy. Enjoy!

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What would Louisa think of this cat?

I think she would have laughed out loud, just like me. 🙂

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Could Louisa have run the Boston Marathon?

I am so pleased to work in Wellesley, MA, the halfway mark of the prestigious 26 mile Boston Marathon. I’m watching the coverage live on the internet and I felt a lump in my throat watching the elite women runners speed past the huge crowds of cheering students from Wellesley College. Wouldn’t Louisa, a runner herself, have been proud! May she would have run the marathon too!

Top: elite women runner passing Wellesley College (; below from Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women (

UPDATE: JBee posted this cool link to a post called Day hike: Louisa May Alcott and walking to Boston – Louisa once walked from Concord to Boston and went to a party! Thanks JBee!

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Book Review: The Glory Cloak

By way of review (as mentioned in the previous post), The Glory Cloak by Patricia O’Brien is an historical novel featuring Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton. It covers the Civil War through the eyes of a fictitious Alcott cousin, Susan Gray, who comes to live with the Alcotts after being orphaned. Susan becomes Louisa’s constant companion, confidant and critic. Together they volunteer to serve as nurses in the Civil War where they meet Clara Barton; eventually Susan will work with Clara to continue her service in a most extraordinary way.

Normally I would not go through and summarize what happened in the story, but because I want to explore the interesting theories that O’Brien had about Louisa, it is necessary to give you a point of reference. I will do my best to avoid spoilers.


The Glory Cloak moves so quickly that I could have read it in one sitting if the time had presented itself. It was a blessing at the gym, seeing as I hadn’t worked out in three weeks. I was so engrossed in the story that I forgot all about my aches and pains!

The beginning

Storefront of Clara Barton's war office from

The story begins with a 1997 discovery of Clara Barton’s office on the third floor of a building in Washington slated to be torn down. This is the office where Barton, with just a handful of volunteers, sought (successfully) to find and identify thousands of missing dead soldiers. This story, based on fact, is crucial to the plot.

Setting and the characters

Through her made-up characters (Susan Gray, John Sulie (based on the real life character of John Suhre from Hospital Sketches), Belle Poole, Liddy Getty), O’Brien takes the reader deep into the horror of a Civil War hospital inundated with wounded. She also takes us into the minds of her real characters, most especially Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton.

I have never read anything before on Clara so I cannot judge how realistic her portrayal was in the story. However, my interest was piqued and I plan on finding out more about her.

Bold theories

I do know Louisa fairly well and was intrigued with the  theories that O’Brien floated about her throughout the story. I am going to explore those theories in detail in a followup to this post.

The main character

Susan  Gray and her family visited the Alcotts for a week or two twice every year. Outspoken and spirited like her cousin, she and Louisa, ten years her senior, became close life-long friends. When Susan’s family was wiped out by a typhoid epidemic, she wrote to Louisa, asking to be taken in.

Susan delighted in Louisa’s brash and boyish ways. In one scene, the two girls are sitting in an apple tree; Louisa dares Susan to climb to a high branch and hang upside down by her knees. Eager to please though terrified at the thought, Susan complies and is secretly proud of herself for being so audacious.

It was this theme of the “dare” that would be repeated throughout the book.

What is the glory cloak?

The title of the book  refers to a special real-life cloak made for the Alcott girls for their theatricals. Louisa came to use it whenever she wrote (complete with a hat) and while stories abound as to how it came into her possession, it was Lizzie (aka Beth in this story) who bequeathed the robe to Louisa despite her own fondness of it:

“Beth laughed, removing the wrap. ‘Oh girls, it’s too much for me. Lou, you’re the only one who can wear this and do it justice. You have the flair for it.’

‘No –‘ Lou began to protest.

Beth was firm. “It’s your cloak, It’s your glory cloak. You will do wonderful things wearing it, I am sure of it.’ “

It continued to be Louisa’s costume of choice whenever she would disappear into her vortex of writing.

Grown-up challenges

Bonnets from 1866

Susan came to live with the Alcotts shortly after Lizzie had died. Louisa was establishing herself as the breadwinner of the family through her writing, and Susan, wishing also for purpose, used her talents as a hat maker in the local shop in downtown Concord.

Susan noticed immediately how duty-bound and somber her cousin had become. Scarred and yet motivated by all she had lost, Louisa was bound and determined to be the Alcott breadwinner and even tried to discourage Susan from working in the local shop, claiming that the Alcotts were “above” being merchants.

As the Civil War began to rev up, Louisa and Susan became restless, eager to become a real part of the action. Hearing that nurses were needed, they volunteered and set off together on their grand adventure to Washington, D.C. (known as Washington City at the time). They had no idea what they were getting into.

Reality hits home

Civil War union hospital SHNS photo courtesy Library of Congress

Both sheltered and prim, Susan and Louisa see a much broader view of the world at the Union Hospital. Here O’Brien introduces several colorful characters including the worldly Liddy Getty and the unscrupulous assistant head nurse, Belle Poole.

The Glory Cloak uses Louisa’s Hospital Sketches and greatly expands upon the descriptions of pain, horror and death. Details are gruesome – there is no romanticizing here, especially when the wounded begin streaming in from the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg.

It is here that we meet the focal point of the  novel, John Sulie.

Love interest

From an 1897 edition of Alcott's "Hospital Sketches"

O’Brien describes John as Alcott described him: large, manly, exceedingly handsome. But while Louisa’s description in Hospital Sketches  is that of a noble saint, O’Brien’s Sulie is rougher, mysterious and very well-read. Louisa is immediately attracted to him and the feeling is mutual. It begins with discussions of  Milton and Whitman (Walt Whitman even makes a cameo appearance) and soon the chemistry between the two is obvious.

However, Louisa is not the only one attracted to Sulie – so is Susan. John Sulie becomes a major test to their friendship.


Eventually Louisa is sent home nearly dying of typhoid and Sulie disappears. Both she and Susan are greatly changed by their “grand adventure” and the deep sorrow that came of it. Louisa loses herself in her writing and Susan seeks greater purpose. Enter (again) Clara Barton.

The next grand adventure

Clara Barton during the Civil War from a detail of a Mathew Brady photo

Clara Barton has achieved a noble reputation for her nursing of the wounded in the field. Now she is obsessed with finding all the missing soldiers.

Susan offers to help but this time Louisa does not follow her cousin. Instead she goes to Europe as a companion to invalid Emma Weld (based on Anna Weld). Duty supersedes adventure for Louisa.

Clara and Susan, along Liddy Getty and Tom Cassidy, a soldier Susan had nursed who was sweet on her, work to answer thousands of letters from distraught families looking for their husbands and sons. Enter again John Sulie who holds the answer.

What follows is a breathtaking series of events (some tragic) that test the mettle of Susan’s friendship with Louisa. These events also demonstrate the amazing strength of one woman, Clara Barton, and the astonishing things she was able to accomplish.

And the verdict is …

I loved this book! I haven’t lost myself in a story this much since reading Gone with The Wind. The Glory Cloak is not nearly so epic, but it is powerful. I am so glad I had read Gone with the Wind because The Glory Cloak gives a decidedly northern point of view on the war. I found myself thinking of the southern side as presented through Scarlett O’Hara while reading O’Brien’s take.

The historical details are fascinating, especially the many references to personal feminine life such as hygiene and the change of life. I had always wondered how women in the 19th century dealt with these issues – now I have an idea.

Using Susan to get to Louisa

The Alcott family in front of Orchard House, from

Susan Gray proved to be a terrific vehicle for getting in the heart, mind and soul of Louisa as well as other members of the Alcott family. It’s obvious which members of the family O’Brien found most interesting. Younger sister May was very Amy-like, yet still quite likable. Lizzie was hardly mentioned as if O’Brien didn’t know what to do with her. Anna played a small role but was beautifully presented.

O’Brien’s contempt for Bronson was palpable – the man could do nothing right! I found her presentation of Abba to be quite curious at first and couldn’t really figure out what she thought of her until I reached the end of the book.

Getting to know Clara

If historical fiction is meant to tempt us to find out more then O’Brien did her job well. Clara Barton was very interesting to me. The second half of the book focused on her and what a powerhouse she was! She lived the life of an autonomous, fiercely independent spinster woman with nobility and power. All I can say is, “Wow!”


I appreciated that O’Brien could be provocative without openly poking the reader with jabs (which is what I am finding with Geraldine Brooks’ March). The Glory Cloak showed this newbie writer just how bold one must be to write convincing historical fiction, especially if that fiction is based upon real-life, well-loved characters. O’Brien’s theories were backed up with thoughtful, well-executed and believable scenarios.  She reinforced what I’ve long suspected, that one must dig very deep and set the imagination free to succeed at writing something that will carry the reader away and touch the heart. Writing is not for the fainthearted!

In a future post I will share some of O’Brien’s theories regarding Louisa. They changed forever the way I look Louisa and Hospital Sketches.

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