Tag Archives: Writing

Love Letter to Humans, Even Me

This semester I’ve made it a goal to contribute to a weekly poetry forum at my school, Vermont College of Fine Arts. It’s good for me to produce something each week that I send out into the world, even if it is a very safe and supportive version of the world. Here’s a poem I’m pleased with that I wrote earlier this semester.

Love Letter to Humans, Even Me

One never knows.

One hears of accidents on bridges.

Earthquakes toppling buildings.

Which is to say nothing

of the tremors that topple us from within.

Some of us stooped

and some of us broken

and yet we go outside.

To work to visit to breathe fresh air.

It is so beautiful

and so brave.

I love us all for this.

Things to Do with a Feeling

 

Things to Do with a Feeling

squint at it

hide from it

cry over it

share it with your best friends

share it with your therapist

share it with the one person who needs to hear it most

write a story about it

tie it to a stone and drop it in the ocean

wrap it around your shoulders like a blanket

spread it around like fairy dust

develop a crush on it

send it away

stay up until it comes home

hold it under your tongue until it melts

press it between prayerful hands

whisper to it in the dark

rock it in your arms

wait

watch

see how it grows

Delight

 

Delight

Does the tree

feel dismay

about her scars?

Or the places where

a bug burrowed,

a bird made its nest?

Does the tree

wish to hide her bark

where it is weathered,

stained, and rough?

Does the tree

feel ashamed

of her asymmetry?

No. The tree

delights

in her strength,

in the way she grows hard

as she ages.

She holds spaces

to share

to feed

to shelter.

 

 

Just as the sapling,

uncertain as a fawn,

delights

in her trembling beginning.

And the seed,

full to bursting of promise,

delights

in her prelude

of cool, cool earth.

 

The tree

delights

in herself

until

she

falls.

Mile Markers and Check Points

If you haven’t heard Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast “Magic Lessons” (based on her book of the same name), it’s an inspiring listen. Ms Gilbert speaks to creative folks who are struggling to start or re-start their work. As these fledgling artists speak to Ms Gilbert about their fears, she generously bolsters them with her experience and encouragement. She gives them assignments and deadlines. Then, she utters the six most powerful words any artist can hear: “I’ll check in with you later.”

Bringing an idea from the realm of the formless and vague into the physical world is the type of work that’s best done with some sense of urgency. A sweater stitched one meager row at at time, for example, would be deemed a useless enterprise, and discarded before it even had a second sleeve. Urgency creates momentum, powering the maker through the inevitable tedium and the challenges.

Sometimes the urgency comes from the idea itself, the sheer excitement of it, the friction as it rubs against the inside of the mind. But, other times, urgency and motivation come from those kind people who make the artist feel accountable, the ones who’ll ask questions, or say, “I’ll check in with you later. I want to see how this is going for you.”

For years, I was a Secret Writer. Only my husband and a couple of my closest friends knew that I was working on a book. And so, I worked on it in fits and starts, often losing the thread of meaning and struggling to find it again. The work never quite felt as though it mattered. In fact, it didn’t, because no one knew about it. It was like a ghost, or an imaginary friend that others were always accidentally sitting on.

The more I began to go public with my work – to share it with friends, read it to writing groups, and discuss my goals – the more it became a real part of my life. I had to get comfortable with the supremely uncomfortable act of talking about my writing. The secret was out. People were going to ask, “How’s the writing going these days?” And so, I had to have something to tell them.

Thank goodness for these people, without whom my efforts might have fizzled out completely. Now I use these folks strategically and on purpose, announcing my goals to my writing group and my friends, and asking them to please keep me honest. My goals are humble, sometimes embarrassingly so, but these mile markers along the way keep me trudging forward when I’d often like to stop. And, by the way, these folks use me, too, and our mutual encouragement makes us all feel a little less alone at our desks.

I’m grateful to Elizabeth Gilbert and the other professional artists who keep sharing their own experiences to inspire and motivate others. Most of all, I’m ever so grateful to my own personal cheerleaders, all the people who care enough to ask, “How’s your writing going these days?” Thank you for making room at the table for my imaginary friend.

This isn’t the first time Elizabeth Gilbert has inspired me. Also see my post about her wonderful Ted talk about creativity, and my thoughts on Eat, Pray, Love. And, if you are interested in creativity, her book Big Magic is… well, magical.

Alive to the world

Crows screech,

black robes beating

against a diffuse grey sky.

In a breath of quiet

a new sound,

clear and bright,

trills from my laurel bush,

and a somber blue jay

hops

from branch to delicate branch

testing his morning legs.

His voice, more poignant

because it is alone,

and sweeter

by its sole performance.

Sweeter still

by the gentle frame of my memory

as I recall

the cascade of notes

that greeted me

because I

had decided

to listen.

Adore Life, Part 2

Yesterday I posted about the album “Adore Life” by Savages. I’ve been thinking more and more about why the sentiment – to adore life, to embrace it without trying to pick off only the best moments – resonates with me so deeply.

It’s not because I’m coming up on an age at which people start thinking about their mortality. Certainly not that.

It’s not because I have regrets. Those mistakes that used to cause me pain are now slowly making their way into the “experience” column, and I try not to perseverate over them as much as I used to do.

It’s because of writing.

Writing requires me to be present, to sit in a messy, uncomfortable, difficult process, and strive to make something beautiful. It requires focus and sacrifice, by which I mainly mean forgoing evenings of television and lunches with friends. Writing a novel is the work of years, and in each second of that time there are so many other tasks that are definitely easier and possibly more critical than sitting with my pen. It’s a miracle a book ever gets written at all.

So, as I write, I have to remind myself that my time on the planet is short. It will end – as Jehnny  Beth sings, maybe tomorrow – and I my moments will be spent. Why not spend them living fiercely, loudly, and wholly? Why not adore life, even the messy and difficult parts?

Why not try and make a a miracle?

DIY MFA: Text #5, The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War came out in 1974, but its violent themes and multiple perspective structure feel modern and relevant. As I read it, I was torn between my reader’s zeal for the story and my writer’s mind learning from the masterful turns of suspense and symbolism on each page. I’ll lay out my thoughts about the lessons I take from this book to apply to my work.

Cormier creates suspense from the first page – indeed, from the first line – to the last. Up to the very end, I was not sure what would happen or how things would turn out for the main character Renault. In fact, the subtly ambiguous ending leaves me still not quite knowing what to think. For days afterward, questions about Renault haunted my thoughts and, if that’s not a testament to incredible writing, I don’t know what is.

The first line of the book both draws the reader in and tells the whole story in three words: “They murdered him.” The him, Jerry Renault, is a freshman at an all boy’s Catholic high school, getting beaten to a pulp at the football team tryouts. The paragraphs that follow this powerful first line brim with violent imagery; the nameless players on the field are explosions and sharp edges, tearing Renault apart. He’s “a toy boat caught in a whirlpool.”

Yet, even as Renault feels defenseless, beaten, and abandoned, he is aware that the most important thing is to survive. To go on, after being knocked down. So, he does get up, and is rewarded with a spot on the team. His inner strength results in triumph.

His actions at the try-out attract attention from more than just the coach. Archie, an older student at Trinity, and the brains behind a gang called the Vigils, notices Renault’s strength and decides to put him to the test. And this is where the chocolate comes in.

Throughout the book, chocolate is a symbol for power. The annual chocolate sale, run by the manipulative and creepy Brother Leon, raises money for the school. Cormier suggests, though not explicitly, that Leon has made a deal for his own benefit and needs the boys to raise additional funds to cover up his unlawful expenditures. Leon’s grab for power relies on his ability to conscript the students, especially the Vigils, into selling enormous amounts of chocolate for him. In return, the Vigils receive their own bit of power. All goes well, everyone buying into this game of power handed up the chain, except for Jerry Renault. He’s a thoughtful loner, missing his recently deceased mother and isolated from his grieving father. Renault’s objection to the chocolate sale throws the whole established system into jeopardy and makes him a target for Leon and the Vigils. In an echo of the football tryout in the first chapter, these characters organize ruthless physical and emotional attacks on Renault. This, then, is the chocolate war. The power war.

We readers desperately want Renault to have victory at the end. But, does he? He’s beaten, but still alive. Is survival enough? There is no coach to offer him a reward to make his efforts worthwhile. In the world, is there a reward for moral behavior? Does taking a moral stand pay off? Is it its own reward? If Renault could go back to the start, would he put his head down and sell his portion of chocolate compliantly? These are some of the questions that linger in my mind at the end.

In addition to suspense and symbolism, Cormier effectively creates a microcosm by populating it with believable and purposeful characters. Although the central conflict is between Renault and Archie, the peripheral characters fill out the edges. A few members of the student body briefly participate in the conflict, but the boys largely act as a wave, swelling in a single direction. At first, there are glimmers of admiration and respect for Renault’s bravery, then when the Vigils go on the attack, the boys are eager to see blood spilled. Their preference for violence over morality chills me.

As a writer of young adult fiction, I often wonder how to deal with the adults in kids’ lives. Many writers choose to keep adults out of the story altogether in order to empower their main characters. More difficult is to include adult characters in a way that supports the story, as Cormier does. The adults in the pages of The Chocolate War, aside from Brother Leon, are mostly silent and ineffectual, but their presence in the story serves a purpose. They largely do not see what is happening; even Renault’s father ignores his son’s situation. Though they are supposed to protect and guide their children, the parents and teachers are ignorant and useless.  One mother nags at her son about his manners, but her worries are so far from his own, and so insignificant, that he completely ignores her, “like shutting the sound of the television.” Cormier is pointing out here that the corrupt system of power relies on blindness as much as it does on the primary offenders, a message that is as relevant now as it was forty years ago.

The Chocolate War comes up often among writers, especially those whose stories feature teens, and I can see why. Cormier’s book is exciting, and does not shy away from the real challenges of teens’ lives, which, it turns out, aren’t so very different from the challenges in any one’s life. How many of us can say that we have figured out how to deal with corruption, that we always speak up when we see something wrong?

For more discussion of this book, listen to Jo Knowles speaking with Sara Zarr on the wonderful “This Creative Life” podcast, in which Knowles discusses Cormier’s impact on her work. Incidentally, Zarr’s podcast is always wonderful and worth a listen. The way she and her guests generously share their experiences and wisdom truly warms my heart and makes me happy to call myself a writer.

Also check out Junot Diaz’s related story in a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, in which he also refers to Robert Cormier’s books.

To read previous entries in my DIY MFA series:

DIY MFA: Text #4, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The fourth book in my DIY MFA is Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book wasn’t received well when it was published, so I didn’t know what to expect from my reading. I can only say now that I loved reading this book, and loved seeing the world through Janie’s eyes. This book and its characters have fastened themselves to my mind. In this post, I’ve chosen to discuss three of the many aspects that beg exploration: the beginning of the book, Janie’s character arc, and Hurston’s beautiful language. As I examine these aspects of the classic novel, I’m always thinking about how to apply what I’m learning to my current work-in-progress, and to my writing in general.

Hurston creates profound sympathy for Janie from the first page. The story begins as Janie  walks a gauntlet of prying, gossiping neighbors. Out loud, they talk gleefully about how she’s fallen in the world. “She ain’t even worth talking after,” one neighbor says, as they continue to discuss nothing else. “She sits high, but she looks low.” Janie earns the reader’s sympathy by enduring her neighbor’s stinging hostility; she more than endures. She walks by without withering, without stopping to solicit the neighbors’ good opinions. She sails by, with the grace and confidence of a woman who deserves admiration, but doesn’t need it. In just a few short paragraphs, Hurston tells us much about this character, and also allies us readers with her.

Getting readers to be on the main character’s side is something that Cheryl Klein has talked about in her book Second Sight (and also in this post on her blog). Klein says the author can make a character sympathetic by showing unlikable characters mistreating him or her. Klein discusses this strategy via Harry Potter (as is her way). She writes, “What happens is basic literary math: We dislike the Dursleys, and the Dursleys dislike Harry, so we automatically like Harry.” Janie couldn’t be more different from Harry Potter, but the same strategy works in both cases. If it can work in these two texts, it can certainly work in mine.

Hurston seeds the introductory pages with elements that pulled me instantly into the story. There is, as I’ve said, the friction with the neighbors. We also learn almost immediately that there has been a death, but don’t yet know who has passed away. Then, we hear about a man named Tea Cake, and we know only that he’s younger than Janie, that the neighbors didn’t approve of him, and that they assume that he has been an instrument of her downfall. Death, envy, and sex – what could be more titillating?

Janie’s arc from a person who lives according to society’s values to someone who lives by her own is a compelling and beautiful one. It’s not only that Janie has an unconventional love affair, or that she finds her voice. It’s what she says, it’s that she learns to say what is in her heart. For example, when Tea Cake asks her whether she regrets leaving her secure and affluent life to be with him, Janie says, “If you kin see the light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door.” Earlier in the story, Janie resigns herself to a separateness of her outer and inner worlds. Such an emotional speech is only possible for her later in her life, when she feels whole.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a coming of middle-age story. There are many stories like this, about the older and wiser woman who, after spending her youth doing what society expects, sloughs of external obligations and begins to live for herself. I, an almost middle-aged white woman in the Pacific Northwest, relate deeply to Janie’s journey, though we share little else in common.

The beauty of this book is its language. Hurston writes with two distinct styles: the narrative voice and the dialogue. Both are rich with rhythm and metaphor. The narrative voice contains some of the Southern vernacular, but it’s in the dialogue that the characters and setting come to life. Hurston uses open vowels and dropped consonants, writing phonetically to make the dialect accessible to readers. Even though I’m not familiar with the dialect at all, within a few pages I felt at home in it.

Here’s an example that shows both narrative voice and dialogue. In this scene, Janie and her second husband Joe are having one of the fights that erodes their affection.

“You sho love to tell me whut to do, but Ah can’t tell you nothin’ Ah see!”

“Dat’s ’cause you need telling’,” he rejoined hotly. “It would be pitiful if Ah didn’t. Somebody got to think for women and chillun and cows. I god, they show don’t think for theirselves.”

“Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!”

“Aw naw they don’t. They just think they’s thinkin’. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one.”

Time and scenes like that put Janie to thinking about the inside state of her marriage. Time came when she fought back with her tongue as best she could, but it didn’t do her any good. It just made Joe do more. He wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it.

So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left her bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again.

– Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes  Were Watching God

In a recent SCBWI workshop on dialogue, Lin Oliver advised writers only to attempt regional dialogue if they really know it and can comfortably keep it going throughout the whole book. Hurston writes the dialect precisely and consistently; it’s the tongue of her childhood.

My current work-in-progress Nana’s Bikini has several characters who speak with a heavy Italian accent. I’m struggling with consistency, and with how to convey their accents at all. Oliver’s advice is to indicate the dialect with key words or phrases, rather than try to carry the dialect through to the end. I’ll have to go back to my manuscript, and think carefully about how to do this. What could the key words be? What is the best way to write the Italian accent phonetically? Once I decide these answers, I have to make sure I carry that through from beginning to end.

This book was a gift to me as a writer and a reader, and I’m grateful for my DIY MFA for prompting me to read it. Thank goodness, too, for Alice Walker, considered by many to be responsible for rekindling interest in Hurston. In 1975, Walker wrote an article for MS. Magazine called “Looking for Zora” about her trip to Hurston’s final hometown to find her burial site and to speak with those who knew her. It’s a wonderful read about Alice Walker paying tribute to her hero, her adopted ancestor.

To read previous entries in my DIY MFA series:

Fun with Rubrics

Author Jo Knowles wrote a blog post called “Some Things I Learned from Being ‘Judge-y'”, in which she reflects on the experience of judging writing competitions, and compiles the feedback she gave to the submissions. Looking across her feedback, I was struck by the common threads and my mind started to bunch certain comments together. I was also super grateful that she generously shared her experience so that the rest of us could learn a thing or two. Her post epitomizes the generosity of the writing community. Three cheers for writers!

I thought it would be useful to apply Ms Knowles’ criteria to my own submissions, to see how my writing would fare and, most importantly, asses where it needs the most improvement. For ease, I adapted her comments into a rubric. By referring to the rubric during revision, a writer can see what he or she already does well, and which areas of the writing are weakest. And, then, by following a column, the writer can even figure out what to do to move his or her writing into the next category.

Can’t take the teacher out of the girl, I guess.

Here’s a link to the Writing_Rubric I made by adapting Ms Knowles’ comments. I tried to make it feel as universal and non-genre specific as possible. Feel free to use and share. I hope it’s helpful to others.

To learn more about author Jo Knowles, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.