Category Archives: Thoughts on Writing

The Mystery of it All

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Gazing at the Spring 2017 issue of the Writer’s Digest Yearbook: Writing Essentials, I was struck by the young lady pictured on the cover. (passive voice, I know). My first thought was to acknowledge how very good looking she is. She smiles a beautiful smile, beautiful white teeth. Her hair cascades wonderfully down her shoulders and over her cool, off-white jacket. She has rolled up the sleeves, revealing slim arms. She’s slim, physically fit, sexy. She runs every morning in the park. Notice the white sign that shamelessly states: “NO EXPERIENCE” blocks her third finger, left hand. Interesting.

To the left and even with the top of her head is the headline: SUCCESS BEGINS HERE! So, it appears she’s happy because she is a successful writer, a thought which begs the question: Is she a writer? I mean a “real” writer? I look on the inside cover and find out that the cover image is credited to Yuri Arcurs, who is a professional photographer. I Googled.  The pictured lady is unnamed.

I checked a few other magazines I had lying about. It seems when an actual writer is highlighted on the cover their name appears as well. For instance, the July/August 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest features a marvelous picture of Heather Graham, and again, in the March/April 2017 issue of Poets & Writers, we see a bearded George Saunders on the cover. He’s sort of leaning into the center—towards his name, in large white letters.

Now both Graham and Saunders are writers, and just by looking at the pictures one can easily surmise that they are both over thirty. Why do I mention that fact? Well, let’s return to our first picture. The young lady shown is a twenty-something. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to rant and rave about young writers or young, incredibly-good-looking writers. No, no. I’m interested in this cover image for another reason…no, not that one either!

The reason is this:

Our anonymous young lady is a fiction. The whole set-up is a fiction. Let’s see what we can make of this. The Artist as a Young Woman is sitting at her desk. She’s sitting in one of those cloth swivel chairs, no arms. That’s why she’s leaning on the desk. She’s leaning towards us as if she’s about to speak or perhaps waiting for us to say something witty. I don’t know.

It’s a clean desk. You don’t see “stuff” lying about, such as old post-it notes or books or a pile of useless USBs or a few unpaid bills or a piece of a dog biscuit the dog didn’t eat last night. She leans toward us a bit. Her hands are clean, no calluses. Her unpainted nails are neatly manicured. No gaudy finger nail polish here. As previously noted, she’s wearing a very nice summer jacket—perhaps because the air conditioning is too high there in her study. Is it her study? We don’t know.

Beneath the jacket she dons what appears to be a t-shirt? Difficult to say. We see just enough cloth to know that she’s wearing something! Ah, and no earrings. I had to pull out my magnifying glass to check. There seemed to be something in that right ear, the one we can see. Something. What is that? What the hell? It looks like a kernel of corn…. I swear. Maybe she’s not even human. Ah, but no. It’s probably just the light. Maybe my nerves. Her left eye (She has brown eyes.) is larger than her right eye, as if she’s on to something. She knows something we don’t.

Oh—what was that? I thought I heard a sound. Maybe not. Back to the picture.

You see the corner of a laptop. Now the laptop in and of itself is not so much, but when we study the position of the computer in relationship to the non-writer, writer, we realize that she’s not very much involved with the screen. It’s at an odd angle. It’s actually turned away from her stunning gaze. Hmmm.

The computer also appears to be sitting on top of a white desk pad. Don’t you find that a bit disturbing? It echoes all that “whiteness” behind her. As if she’s in a white room, a sterile room, a room without end. There’s no writing on the desk pad, and it’s pushed quite a far piece back from the edge of the desk, a fact which I find odd. And why is that computer turned away? Why? Was there a second chair? Where is it? Who was looking at the computer, if not her? Who indeed? Just above her head are the letters: AL. Who is Al? Is that the missing person, the writer who has vanished? Is that a desperate message? Hold on Al.

We also see rising up, as it were, from the bottom of the cover, a glass. At this point, I thought to wax philosophical and ponder whether the glass is half full or half empty. Unfortunately, the glass in question appears to be absolutely empty…period.

But here our fiction takes a dangerous turn. There’s a second glass! Look carefully, there in front of her is—another glass. It’s empty as well. There’s a chill in the room. She’s holding a pen. She’s happy. She has sharp dog teeth. The glass is empty. Has she been drinking? Is that why she’s happy? Or is it something else, something even more sinister?

Someone is missing from this picture. Maybe it’s the real writer—Al somebody—the missing person, the absent chair. Or deeper than that, she is the real writer. The ghost writer. Al’s a fake. Maybe that’s why we don’t see the third finger. Eh?

She knows something. It has made her incredibly happy. We see her joy. We feel the bliss, the delight. She has succeeded. Indeed, the very headline tells us: SUCCESS BEGINS HERE! What success is that? Examine the key words: “finished novel.” Whose, I ask? Yours? Mine? Al’s? “Find more time” Oh, hell no. She definitely is happy about “more” time. “How to submit” OMG! Yes, indeed, I rest my case, dear blogger friends.  Here’s some real skullduggery if I ever saw it.

I think I might even subscribe.

I don’t know why I did this. It was fun! Hope you enjoyed.

The Writer, the Novel, the Ending

Two guests from afar.

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I want to talk about “novel endings” but first a bit of history. Back in the nineties, I taught a course in Modernist Literature. Here’s the reading list.

  • The Sun Also Rises                                     Hemingway
  • Ethan Frome                                               Wharton
  • 1984                                                              Orwell
  • The Trial                                                      Kafka
  • Invisible Man                                              Ellison
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God               Hurston
  • The Great Gatsby                                       Fitzgerald

While I don’t want to spoil a possible “first” reading of any of the above, I will repeat one student’s question before we started our final novel, The Great Gatsby. The young lady raised a weary hand and asked, “Is this another depressing story?”

I tried, half-heartedly, to evade the issue, but let’s face it, the Modernists weren’t into the “feel good about yourself” narrative. As it turns out, much of the Modernist harangue is still with us. We still hear from well-intentioned writers, Hemingway’s advice to “kill your darlings.” And publishers continuously echo Ezra Pound’s maxim: “Make it new!” And don’t forget Anton Chekhov’s famous command to “Show, don’t tell.” Finally, there is that lingering Modernist theme that REALITY is a stained, dirty note reminding us all that life sucks.

Even now, we receive tons of novels that deliver “gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, tragic endings.” I usually steer away from them. I no longer need my heart broken or my gut wrenched. But I do enjoy novels that make me think or give me some insight into human nature—sans tragedy.

Novels chronicle struggle, the necessity to overcome some barrier to gain a desired state of being. Now we know that life is a relational experience: I am happy because I know what unhappiness is. The depth of your understanding of “happiness” may well depend upon your experience with unhappiness or misery. Your ability to research and/or empathize broadens this knowledge.

Beneath the lamp, you write and write. You intensify your protagonist’s struggle through a series of conflicts. Finally, thousands of words and hundreds of pages later, you arrive at the crossroads—the point of ultimate action, the climactic point. Now, something has to give, and you write your ending—happy with success or sad with failure.

The ending of your novel, I believe, has to do with your writer/audience relationship. Here’s two examples:

First, as a writer you compose with a strong desire to expose your readers to the wrongs of the world, but leaving them with a conquering/successful/fulfilled protagonist, that is to say, a “feel-good” novel that ends happily. Your goal as a novelist isn’t to lead your audience into a nightmare that deprives them of sleep for the next week or drives them into a three-day drinking binge. Indeed, you want to mitigate the horrors they already face as citizens of a cowardly, old world.

OR

Second, as a writer, you perceive your goal as one similar to Kafka’s, who said the novel should be “the axe for the frozen sea within us.” That is to say, your novel liberates readers from their hide-bound comforts and forces them to face the terrible and difficult issues of our human existence. Your narrative ends with separation, confusion, terror and/or loss. You recognize the hard realities of life, and you want your readers to do the same.

The two above possible endings reflect self-vision. The first: you are a writer who stabilizes. You are an ever-shining beacon that guides the anxious reader through the storm and safely into port. The second: you are the writer who interrupts. You are the storm that roughly and without apology smashes the boat and tosses the hapless reader into the raging foam, into the swirling dark.

What are your thoughts blogger friends? What’s your preference: happy or tragic endings? How does it affect your own writing?

Now, here’s a happy ending–from my own back yard!

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The Feminine Touch

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Cross-gender writing is nothing new. When Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel, Jane Eyre, (1847) was published under Bronte’s non-gendered pen name, Currer Bell, huge arguments broke out in Victorian England as to whether or not the author was male or female. One heavy-hitting critic voted male because the novel reflected a “manly” prose. I like to think that some hundred seventy years later, we’ve come a long way.

All of this is to say that I, a male, don’t feel too uncomfortable writing a novel with a female protagonist. For point of view, I’m using third person limited. The protagonist is a public-school biology teacher. She’s twenty-five, moderately good-looking, intelligent, and single.

I realize that creating a protagonist whose gender is opposite of one’s own can be tricky business. A huge mistake any writer can make is to think: “Hey, this is easier than I thought.” At that point, one may well be dancing blindly on the rim of a volcano. Complacency is the writer’s greatest enemy.

I’m stuck in my own hetero-sexual male culture, but not so deep that I’m unable to contemplate the infinite intricacies of the feminine heart. Isn’t that a brave thing to say? Here’s a quick story, a true story, to explain…or confuse.

From the time I entered the first grade up to at least the fourth grade, my older sister, Mary, always combed my hair before school. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it myself, but it was one of those unquestioned school-morning rituals. She did this in what we called the “big” bathroom, a capacious well-lit room situated midway in a hallway that connected two large bedrooms. The “little” bathroom, on the other hand, was a tiny space crunched in a corner next to the kitchen.

In the “big” bathroom, a large wall mirror loomed over the lengthy linoleum counter, a veritable runway loaded with feminine paraphernalia: perfume, lotions, lipstick, salves, creams, powders, tissues, jewelry, brushes, combs, clasps of all sorts and colors. Half-opened drawers with soft silky scarves poofed over the edge, colorful ribbons, and golden boxes of glittering things.

Centered before the mirror, I sat on a cushioned stool. I think I was eight or nine years old. My slim, pretty sister stood behind me and combed my hair. One morning just as she finished, she gazed at my reflected image and said, “You would have been a pretty girl.”

Now one may think I would have been shocked at such a pronouncement, but I wasn’t. My “boy-ness” wasn’t being questioned. She simply made an impromptu remark that probably came as much from my quiet nature, as opposed to my resistant-to-grooming younger sister, Rosalea, (pronounced: Rosa-lee.) Also, it wasn’t so much what she had said, but that it was a girl, my sister, who said it. Had another boy said that to me, it would have been an instant fight. But it was a girl, my sister—someone I respected and in my little brotherly way: loved. The point being: I never forgot that moment.

Growing up in the heavily patriarchal 50s, my sister’s observation was an epiphany. I was a nice enough looking young boy, with a boy’s penchant for getting dirty, getting into scrapes, and not tying my shoe laces properly, a fact that drove my mother up the wall, but suddenly I was handed this rare gem: a comment that invited me towards that vague and strange place—the feminine spirit. I believe this was a seminal moment in the formation of my writerly-self. I did not for an instance think I was a girl, but in the deep recesses of shadowy, synaptic thought, my sister had ignited an inquisitive spark that would fuel a lifetime fascination and abiding respect for the world of the female.

We writers are a curious bunch…that may be one of the reasons we tend not to be so great in school. Curiosity demands a great deal of freedom, of looseness, of imagination. None of these are promoted in the left-brained classroom. And, it is a phenomenon that is quite often satisfied by informally listening to others.

I spent many pleasurable moments as Chair of an English Department, sitting behind the office desk, listening to students, often females, talking about their plans, their hopes, their fears. Most of our majors were young African-American women. Talking with them was always interesting—and for me, it was a continuous learning process. I still remember the one young lady who after talking about her latest boyfriend, turned and gazed out the window and said in a matter-of-fact voice, “If I were a man, I’d treat myself a lot better than I do as a woman.” I still ponder that remark.

Not so long ago, my wife and I were sitting outside having a glass of wine. We had just come back from Japan and were talking about our trip. She recounted how much her Japanese friends liked me. She finally said, “You know, it would be great if you could be Japanese, but you can’t—no more than I can be American.” It’s true.

It’s also true that even though I “may have been a pretty girl,” I can’t be a girl, no more than I can be Japanese. All of us writers, push boundaries, but we can only go so far.

Writing a novel with a female protagonist is not easy. I still struggle with particulars, but memory and experience serve me well, and of course there’s all of my incredible female blogging friends!

But allow me this one question for all blogging men and women. What issues do you face when writing across gender lines? Does writing about males and/or females in YA novels, adult novels, or non-fiction give you pause? Do you wonder if you’re off track somehow? How do you research? Let me know. I look forward to your ideas and remarks.

Cherry Blossoms

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Cherry Blossoms, a.k.a., Sakura.

The above is our second and shy third cherry blossoms this spring–less one petal. The first blossom fell to the recent cold front that also sent blizzard Stella roaring into the northeast. The weather has warmed. Robins peck about in the yard. Along the fence, buttercups dip and rise with a warm breeze.  Overhead white clouds glide across a light, blue sky. Soon there will be hundreds of cherry blossoms.

The cherry blossom holds a great deal of symbolic significance in Japan. It signifies, among other things, impermanence–the transient nature of life.  Thinking along these lines the other evening, while drinking a glass of wine and watching clouds, I pondered the issue of instant technology as it relates to the lengthy process of writing. I felt quite philosophical at the time. It could have been the wine. Maybe it was the clouds

I’m over halfway done with my novel, but for the past two weeks, I’ve been stuck on a difficult scene. I keep deleting and rewriting. I know. I know. I’m supposed to get it down on paper. Well, screw all that. I couldn’t let this scene go without its being at least half-way right.

Essentially as I write my first draft, I do a good bit of rewriting and indeed, revision. For instance, let’s say I’ve just finished Chapter 15. I realize that Chapter 14 doesn’t ring true. I scroll back and in the most severe case, rewrite the whole chapter, or I might simply revise one or two passages. And then on to Chapter 16. Since this is a first draft, I find myself punching the DELETE key—a lot.

When I have a complete first draft, I print out the whole thing. Then, I edit—with a pencil. Once edited, I return to the computer and type in the marked-up manuscript. Once done I let it sit for a few weeks and allow it to simmer–then I print out the second draft and start over.

This back and forth process can go on for several months, or God forbid, years. The point is, I end up printing out numerous versions. How many copies—versions—do I print? Four, five, six, ten! They pile up like the very tower of Babble, reaching hopelessly to Heaven.

My question is this: With our computer circuitry that operates in nano-seconds, does it take looonger than before the hi-tech revolution to write three pages? Do we use a hundred times more paper?

How does the cherry blossom figure into all this? Beats me. It was pretty.

So, what are your thoughts? Is our belief that technology makes writing go faster an ironic illusion? Without our realizing it, does the computer slow us down?

A Model for a Novel

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I’m halfway (50 K) through my novel. Early on I realized the setting—a girls’ summer camp/late spring—was becoming complicated. There were cabins for girls, cabins for counselors, a large meeting hall with a cafeteria, an outdoor stage, trees, gazebos, a parking lot…hedgerows, a house for the groundskeeper—sidewalks. I was losing control. I decided to sketch a map of the place.

The above map worked up to a point, but things started moving about…a life of their own, as it were. Then I started making notes on the map! As the novel progressed the map became more and more important and more and more cluttered. It became clear to me that I needed to move things to a HIGHER LEVEL.

I bought a large white board, a pack of construction paper, glue sticks, balsa wood, dowels, all kinds of stuff. I became a Hobby Lobby freak. At first, I used pieces of cut-out construction paper of various colors, to identify buildings as well as to mark their location and black strips to mark roads and sidewalks, then I cut out circles for trees. I kept it all loose in order to move things about as deemed necessary. Much “deeming” later, I went 3D. OMG!

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Silverbridge Summer Camp for Girls

            The cabins were easy to construct—I used pine and miter saw. Painting them was time consuming. The gazebos were the toughest items to construct. I used my scroll saw for the cut-outs. After two or three tries, I had something I liked. I was especially proud of the cupolas. The whole model isn’t built to scale…but things are—more or less—depicted in a relative manner, so it’s not too out of whack. For instance, cars are nothing more than tiny blocks of wood painted various colors. No need to get too realistic.

Materials breakdown:

  • Roads and sidewalks – Corkboard with adhesive backing.
  • Cars – small painted blocks of wood.
  • Trees – dowels and Styrofoam.
  • The grass in the central area – green construction paper.
  • Green cabins for counselors – painted pine.
  • Yellow cabins for girls – painted pine. Four girls to a cabin.
  • Gazebos – painted pine with a balsa wood cupula.
  • Rose bushes – fluff balls. Got them at Hobby Lobby.
  • Green border hedge – square dowels.
  • Main building (red and black) painted pine. Tiny letters from Hobby Lobby.
  • Groundkeeper’s house—painted pine.
  • Boulder next to the flag—a rock I picked up while walking Cody, our black lab.
  • Windows and doors of buildings are construction paper cut-outs and glued on.

Now you may wonder how the writing was going during all of this? Constructing this model while writing its narrative provided an interesting source of depth. On several occasions, each caused revision to the other. I was amazed to literally see the landscape in a 3D aspect as opposed to the imagined. One or two scenes improved because I had a clearer vision of the physical space involved. I could see what my characters see from any vantage point. I used a small clip light to get an idea of the effect of morning sun and shadows. I could turn the whole shebang around and get an evening view…which I did. In short, I’m having a great time with this. Next project: a model of my protagonist’s cabin…why not?

This is the first time I’ve ever done this sort of thing, and it wasn’t planned. So! What are your thoughts? Suggestions? Have you done this sort of thing? Did your model or map, or drawing help you with your novel?  How so?

Just how BIG is a big word?

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After a recent discussion on the use or non-use of BIG words in writing, I had to stop and think…what exactly do we mean when we say BIG WORDS? And to what extent is it okay to use these so-called BIG words in our writing?

If one Googles “SAT Vocabulary,” you will get a list of words a student should have mastered by his senior year in high school. Are they big words? For example, is discern a big word? It may not be so big to us bloggers who have been around the vocab track for some years now, but yes, it may be big to a sixteen-year old who reads maybe one book a year, and he’s forced to do that. And yet, discern may not be so big to another sixteen-year old who reads over fifteen books a year or more! But it’s quite possible neither one uses the word in casual conversation, a fact which brings me to an important point.

We all possess different vocabularies for different situations. We have a speaking or working vocabulary. And we have a reading vocabulary, which is usually the larger of the two. Now, I would hazard a guess that most readers out there – such as the young girl who reads novels on her e-reader—does not consult a dictionary, e-wise or paper, whenever she comes across a word she doesn’t know. If she can’t get the meaning via its context, then she just keeps on reading and that’s that. So, where does that leave us: the writers?

I think it means that we can use words with which our readers may not be familiar, but give strong contextual clues to help them out. For instance, my fourteen to eighteen-year old readers may not know the meaning of discern, but I choose to use it in my YA novel, then why not thus:

Without his glasses, Gerald could not recognize the young girl coming through the woods. He tried to visualize her as best he could but it was useless. He could see the shape of her head, the cut of her hair, which was short like his sister’s, and he noted she was thin, but he could not, hard as he tried, discern the features of her face, especially the tell-tale scar.

I think in this example, I give enough contextual clues that a young reader can easily understand the meaning of discern without having to look it up, and in the ideal world, my reader will learn a new word in the process.

What are your thoughts on this issue?

To be or to really be?

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Buzzard drying his wings here in Alabama.

It’s been over a month since the election. And during this time I have questioned myself on more than one occasion: What is my responsibility as a writer?

The only answer that makes any sense to me is simply: to write as much as I can. That is all any of us can do—and should do. W.H. Auden was right to say, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” What we write in the late hours of darkness and cloudy days will lie about on lifeless sheets of paper or in flickering electronic digits. It does nothing. But with time and patience and enduring hope, our words will make it past our desks and into the hands of another human.

And who knows? It may be your romance novel that stirs the heart of a young woman to get a job and help her single mom with the bills. It may be your fantasy novel that arrests the young man’s attention just long enough for him to think about the poor family down the street. It may be, dear writer, that what you write may give another person pause to consider the miraculous beauty just beyond the back door of his home—the vast heavens or the single yellow pansy growing at the bottom of the frosted steps.

And thus, out of nothing comes something.

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Is there hope? What are your thoughts?

 

The blog that inspired this comment of mine is Ruminationville: a gated community for the overthinker. If you get a chance, drop by and check out Leslie’s informative and insightful blog at Ruminationville: a gated community for the overthinker