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Entries in writing (8)

Thursday
Jul262012

The Mindful Writer: Discover a Kindred Spirit of Wisdom

An insightful pocket-sized book of writing and life wisdom, and a thoughtful gift for any writer.

I don't remember how I ran across this little gem of a book, but I'm glad I did and so will you. Dinty W. Moore fills 142 pages in The Mindful Writer: Nobel Truths of the Writing Life (Wisdom Publications, 2012) with quotations from 49 fine writers followed by his insightful and inspirational reflections on the creative process and how mindfulness plays a central role in writing and life.

At first glance, the book reminds me of Daily Devotions, a book my grandmother used to read a page from every morning. The Mindful Writer deserves a similar careful, deliberate reading, however, it proves to go far beyond any kitschy, cliché-ridden directives.

Moore likens the journey of his writing life to that of the Buddhist’s spiritual journey. In his introduction he delineates “The Four Nobel Truths For Writers” and follows with the structure of the book’s four sections: The Writer’s Mind, The Writer’s Desk, The Writer’s Vision, and The Writer’s Life. Moore elaborates throughout the text as he reflects on the difficulty of the writing life, our need to let go of control, the hope for becoming more fruitful as writers, and practicing a mindful life both in writing and living.

Moore shares his basic, but hard-truth insights: “The process of writing a book can easily entail a hundred pages of false starts, superfluous scenes, exploratory passages that were necessary for the writer to have written, but not necessary for the reader to read in the end.” (It's so true. I've got hundreds of pages of backstory no one will ever read!)

Some of his other reflections bolster my determination and commitment as a writer: “Don’t live your life the way the world wants you to live it. Live your life the way you want it to be lived. And if the life you want includes writing, then don’t wait for the permission. That permission, most likely, will never come. Except from yourself.” (And this is a permission I have to give myself every single day.)

My grandmother was a Christian in every positive sense of the word, and I suspect that fifty years ago she might have misunderstood anything inspired by an association with Buddhism, to her a mysterious foreign cult. However, she enjoyed journaling--and was darn good at it--as she traveled abroad as a self-appointed missionary. If she were alive today, I think she'd find a kindred spirit in Mr. Moore’s book.

Moore's philosphy rings as true for her as it does for me: “It is our job as writers, to imagine why human beings, often even those with the best intentions, seem consistently to create disarray, both personal and public. It is our job as well to understand that these failings could happen to anyone.”

Dinty W. Moore is author of numerous other books, including Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, and the memoir Between Panic & Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize. A self-professed failed zookeeper, Moore has also been a professional modern dancer, Greenwich Village waiter, filmmaker, and wire service journalist. His stories and essays have appeared in The Southern Review, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, among numerous other venues. He is a professor of English and Director of Ohio University’s BA, MA, and PhD in Creative Writing program.

 

Monday
Jul092012

A Sleet Interview With Cathy Day

The Sleet Lady impersonating Jennie Dixianna doing the "Spin of Death."

I couldn’t shake the image for days: Caesar’s trunk groping the second story window frame of my mind like a “tongue licking the corners of a mouth.” I’d just heard Cathy Day read from her debut collection of short stories, The Circus in Winter (Harcourt, 2004) at the AWP conference in Chicago last spring. When I came back home to Minneapolis, I got the book right away and read it clear through in one long, delicious sitting.

Within the tight geographic setting of Lima, Indiana, Day carefully threads a tapestry of stories including generations of families who live and work in the Great Porter Circus and Menagerie. Story after story, time periods, characters, and tragedies layer one upon the other to create a mesmerizing and haunting portrayal of an era long past.

I’d been mulling over an interview I’d agreed to do a few months before, and now I knew just who I’d ask. Welcome as Day shares her thoughts on writing, developing “literary citizenship,” and suspending Barbie dolls from chandeliers.

Read the complete interview on sleetmagazine.com!

Thursday
Jan062011

Susan Power: Pure Magic

Susan Power, author of The Grass Dancer and RoofwalkerWhat happens when you put ten creative writing students in one room for a semester with author extraordinaire, Susan Power? Magic. Pure, right brained, I-don’t-know-where-this-is-going-but-I-like-it magic.

Susan Power, a Dakota Native American writer, won the PEN/Hemmingway award for The Grass Dancer and the Milkweed National Fiction Prize for Roofwalker. Susan’s writing is circuitous and timeless and her process is revelatory, a deliberate approach without deliberation. She doesn’t manipulate her characters like puppets to show readers what she believes. Instead, she listens and allows the characters to show her, the writer, what they believe. Over the semester, Susan shared her magical gift with the class: the courage to surrender control and to open the heart to listen and give voice to whoever shows up.

I knew this class was going to be different when Susan handed out a brief one-page syllabus with no reading list. She wanted us to simply write and to write without restraint. After intense, highly structured craft classes on groundings in fiction, flash fiction, and point of view, this was what I needed to generate material.

Kicking off the first class, Susan challenged the advice commonly given to students: write what you know. “Why would we bother to write what we already know?” she asked us. “Marcie Hershman says to ‘Write what you need to know.’ Let your writing, your stories, be discovered and then ask the questions.”

Yes! This is why writing fulfils me like no other intellectual pursuit because it combines my desire to mull over, to meditate, and to address issues creatively. I can still research for authenticity when necessary, but then I can take the facts and soar with the story born from them. In this process I not only learn new and interesting stuff, but I discover a greater human element that can only be understood empathetically and vicariously through the experiences of my characters and the telling of their stories.

I’ve reviewed my spiral notebook from class and have come to the conclusion that the only notes I really need to carry me on are the first three lines on page 2.

Finding the Truth of Fiction

Puppeteer vs. Freewill characters

Finding the Truth vs. Forcing the “Truth”

These phrases sum up a method of writing that Susan coaxed from each of us in the class. By freeing our minds to follow an image, a sound, a face, a phrase, we discovered characters that we had no idea were possible. We spent the next 13 weeks getting to know them and their families, friends, and enemies. They told us their stories one week at a time, one chapter at a time, and we wrote, revised, and shaped them.

We began with interrogating characters—any character that came to mind whether it was someone we’d been writing about for months, a quirky name, or a face that just popped into our brains. We interviewed our new companions to discover the motivations behind their actions. We asked them why they did what they did through a set of 10 random questions. I turned my screen to white print on white and followed the voice that rose from within my mind—I called him The Dog Walker.  No editing, no censoring, no stopping, just letting the intuitive side of me flow from my fingertips.

Some of my best stories came out of innocent questions such as What is your favorite movie? and Who are your grandparents? These questions morphed into What is it with you and Mary Poppins? And How did your Swedish grandmother and your French grandfather become husband and wife?

Sometimes the questions led to personal discoveries (because I always wanted Mary Poppins to be my hero, my savior, my surrogate mother) and others led to family secrets (they met as strangers and fled Europe’s post WWII desolation with forged marriage documents in order to immigrate to America).

Each week students read from the voices of their newly discovered characters, eager to tell their stories: a Minnesota woman recovering from anorexia; a Russian wolf-girl-woman who after a series of petty thefts in the village, steals an infant; a non-repentant modern-day dream-stealer and his quest for love; a drowned Icelandic boy whose ghost returns thirty years later to resolve his pain, and more.

Through the freewill of our characters, we discovered the truth in their stories. No premeditated agendas. No planned themes to follow. No points to prove. Just the delightfully surprising stories that caused us to sit on the edges of our chairs in anticipation of the answer to what lay on our lips, What happens next? More often than not, a student’s reply was, I don’t know where this is going, but I like it.

Magic. Pure magic. We like it too. Thank you, Susan Power.

-----------------------------------------------

Most notable works by Susan Power:

A brief biography of Susan Power and a review of The Grass Dancer can be found at http://voices.cla.umn.edu/artistpages/powerSusan.php

 

Wednesday
Jul142010

Smart Surprises in Flash Fiction

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field. Edited by Tara L. Masih

I'm progressing through my "field guide" slowly over the summer, taking time to digest each essay with its writing exercises. I think of it like poetry. I could've read through this entire book in a day, but in order to let it soak in, I'm savoring every word, paragraph, and essay and using the experience to guide, inspire, and give the the kick in the pants I need to continue flexing my writing brain over the summer.

Here are some recent tips and thoughts about "smart surprise" that I found especially fruitful from Jennifer Pieroni.

In the section titled "Beginnings and Endings," Jennifer Pieroni, founder and editor of Quick Fiction, emphasizes the “smart surprise” throughout flash fiction—not just as a punch line at the end. The two vehicles for smart surprise are language and image.

“Examples of using language to create smart surprise could include: odd words; uncommon word parings or de-packaging common phrases; invented words; and conscious crafting of the rhythm of words when brought together into a sentence.”

“Just one strong, central image can make the difference between a story being forgettable and being one that stays with the reader forever...Memorable images are natural elements of a scene that are developed to shock readers out of a routine feeling, mood, or expectation.” Pieroni quotes Sam Ruddick, “We seek to be surprised, not by a trick ending, but by the feeling we get from reading the piece.”

Some phrases in the story sample ("Mine," by Szilvia Molnar, from Quick Fiction) Pieroni used that surprise us through language and image are: “the girl that braided her hair with yours,” “a scent of giggles,” “a note on my skin,” “a bruise that had the backside of a rainbow.” It really sounds more like poetry and it is—poetic language to evoke a feeling, a memorable, first-time experience of surprise for the reader.

Here’s a condensed explanation of Pieroni's exercise: Revise a piece of flash fiction you've already written. Use language and image to make your work memorable; use your creativity, your ear for language, and a really good thesaurus. Revise any clichéd phrases and images, with the goal now of surprising the reader with their freshness. If it’s a longer story, try to cut it down to about 500

I took an earlier story I wrote (“I Wanted Her to Go Kicking and Screaming”) from the previous exercise in the book and improved it by removing cliché images or phrases and adding some poetic spice! Looking at a story I already liked with a fresh "smart" perspective made a difference. Now, I'm pretty happy with it (after feedback from fellow writers and three revisions) and I'm sending it out.

I'll let you know if it gets published, but in the meantime, check out The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction!

 

Monday
May312010

Can you truly be a writer with just a click?

Garrison Keillor made a point in his recent commentary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on May 29, 2010, that as the title says, "In just a click, you can become an (e-book) writer, too." (And ironically, here I'm writing through electronic media just as Keillor critically points out that anyone with an internet connection can do.)

He questions the basic loss of writing quality in exchange for quantity and how the old system of gatekeepers is on the cusp of obsolescence just as he imagines the “1982 convention of typewriter salesmen” were about to hit the wall before the tide turned in favor of the digital word processor.

Keillor’s points are well-made (and, or course in his typical quirky, floral style), however I disagree that people will settle for reading any old or new drivel that appears on their Blackberry, iPhone, or laptop.

Readers will always demand the well-told story, whether it’s fiction or journalism, because it’s entertaining, self-revelatory, and offers insight into humanity’s failures and successes. In order to achieve high quality, we still need the gatekeepers, the judges, the strainers—whatever you want to call them—whose business it is to discern the bad and merely good writing from the great writing that we want to read.

I spent an entire semester as a fiction board editor for Water~Stone Review, an annual literary magazine published by Hamline University. We read and culled through over 300 submissions to come up with the final 2-3 short stories for publication.

Believe me. After reading a couple dozen at random, you too would begin to appreciate any story with passion, a proper sense of organization, meaningful content, and an overall sense of blissful (or disturbing) discovery. To create this level of sophistication is not easy—and I don’t mean snootiness, I mean the ability to possess all these qualities and more that make a story truly memorable and in some sense, life changing for the reader.

I was a gatekeeper along with 13 other classmates for 14 weeks and by gosh, together we did a darn good and difficult job of ensuring that Water~Stone Review published memorable stories that touched readers' hearts and minds.

Sure, anyone can play the game of self-publishing in a multitude of formats, and sometimes their work rivals that of traditional publishing—but rarely is that so in the present sea of writing for instant gratification.

If you want to be a writer, to truly share your mind with others, to express yourself and influence others in meaningful ways, I dare you to play by the rules established by traditional publishing.

Practice, try, fail, practice more, try more, fail more. If you are serious, if you desire no other way to connect with people than through writing, you’ll eventually make your way to being published the “old fashioned” way and you’ll be glad for it. It will mean something far greater than your vanity press or your blog post ever could.

You may not become a writer through “the laying of hands” exactly as Keillor puts it, but you will call yourself a writer because others call you a writer, and most of all because others will read what you write and be grateful for having been changed in some small way by it.