Monday, September 28, 2009

Shadow Feet

Walking west this morning, my real foot came down upon my shadow foot. That got me thinking: we're all stepping into the future all the time, every moment converting shadow into reality and potential into actual. If we could stay conscious of this--and we can't--it would greatly improve our chances for accomplishing something meaningful.

I want to walk, maybe even run, to meet the future, not let it sneak up on me like a dogging shadow.

And this is the attitude I take toward writing. I could go about my routine, have snatches of ideas that never make it to the page, and merely wish to be a writer. I've tried that.

Or I can sit down--every single day, or as close to every day as possible--and write. No matter what. Since I can't stay conscious of time passing, I must discipline my passage through it. Of course, there aren't any guarantees that I'll ever publish a word. But the journey counts for something. Maybe everything.

Writing every day is like putting your real foot down on that shadow foot. It's not always glamorous. But when your writing is good, it's like running to meet a future that's running to meet you.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Art & Life?

Amazing, how life and art intersect, right? Or how "coupon-ing" and writing do. A coupon taught me how to spell "Reddi-wip," which I misspelled "Redi-Whip" in a previous post, Blue Jello & Redi-Whip.

Important Note: The product itself says "Reddi wip, without the hyphen, but the website says, with the hyphen. Who knew?

The Truth About Nonfiction

I'm finally back. Better that life sometimes rules out blogging, and not the other way around.

My next writing assignment is to write a nonfiction article for children. This one can require research, but doesn't necessarily. For instance, it can be a how-to article on a subject I already know something about. How to make a sailboat cake, for instance, from two round layers. I did this for my daughter's baby shower, and I still have the pattern I drew for it. (My daughter kept the little baby doll that lay on the deck.) But I probably won't write that article because I have something more fun in mind that will require a little research.

The next several assignments are for nonfiction. I look forward to them because I know there's a lot to learn about the resources available to writers. And I'm told that, even in better economic times than these, it's much easier to sell nonfiction than fiction. And that's the truth.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Potters and Clay

Earlier this week I got Assignment #3 back from my instructor. She called it a "resounding success." And I agree, not so much for the piece itself--although it's my best so far-- as for the lessons I learned from it. The assignment was to use all of the senses to describe a scene remembered from childhood in a way that would interest a child--without going "over the top." (I wrote an earlier post about this assignment, "A Suitcase & a Change of Clothes," here.)

For those of you struggling, as I am, to deal with the huge and numerous demands a story makes on you, this exercise should teach you lots. Not merely that focusing on sensory detail will create a proto-plot, but also that paper-doll characters come to life in the midst of realistic detail. That's just short of miraculous!

In my completed assignment, six characters walk on the beach, including a child as the point-of-view character, her father, stepmother, and three siblings. None are named or physically described, and the only dialogue is a brother yelling, "Sand crab!"

Nevertheless, the people in this vignette seem real by virtue of being plunked down in a real, sensory setting, where the moonlight scribbles its reflection over the water, sparks fly off a cigarette, and the smells of burnt paper and menthol are in the wind.

Your nouns must be specific and carefully chosen, and your verbs active and specific. (Example: not the general noun, "road," but the specific, "Alabama highway 159;" not the general verb, "walked," but the specific, "slogged.") If you get the nouns and verbs right, you won't need many adjectives and adverbs. That is, you won't go "over the top."

I'm really amazed: (1) that anyone (even I) who can conjure up the sensory details of a remembered scene can actually create and evoke an alternate universe by making specific, black marks on a white page; (2) that anyone who can read (that is, decode the specific, black marks on a white page) can enter that reality; and (3) what remarkable creatures we are--"clay that can throw its own pots!"

Monday, September 14, 2009

Story Time Picture Books

It's my turn this week to read to preschoolers during Story Time at my local public library. See what happened my first day here.

I recently solicited picture book recommendations from professional writers and illustrators in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia--either their own work or their favorites, which sometimes happen to coincide. :-) Thanks to all of the members of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), Southern Breeze Region, who responded. I haven't made a decision about what to read yet, but the list, below and in no particular order, is well worth keeping. It should be a great study resource for the pre-published writer (yours truly) as well as for moms with preschoolers.

And by the way, you can find ALL of these books on Amazon.
  • All of the Dr. Seuss books
  • Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr. & Eric Carle
  • What Makes You Giggle? by P. J. Shaw and Tom Brannon
  • Abby Cadabby's Rhyme Time by P. J. Shaw and Tom Leigh
  • Spooky Sleepout! by Eric Suben, P. J. Shaw, and Joe Ewers
  • Look Both Ways: A Cautionary Tale by Diane Z. Shore, Jessica Alexander, and Teri Weidner
  • Bark, George by Jules Feiffer (2 votes)
  • The Wide Mouth Frog by Keith Faulkner and Jonathan Lambert
  • If You’re Happy and You Know It by Jan Ormerod and Lindsey Gardiner
  • Almost all books by Eric Carle
  • Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems
  • Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems
  • Little Penguin’s Tale by Audrey Wood
  • The Napping House by Audrey Wood and Don Wood
  • Shaping Up the Year, Tracey M. Cox and Samantha Bell
  • If You Give (a Moose, a Mouse).... series, by Laura Joffe Numeroffand Felicia Bond
  • If You Give a Mouse A Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff and Felicia Bond<
  • The Three Pigs by David Wiesner
  • A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
  • Agatha's Feather Bed by Carmen Agra Deedyand Laura L. Seeley
  • A Fly Went By by Mike McClintock
  • Traction Man Meets Turbo Dog by Mini Grey
  • The Stray Dog by Marc Simont
  • The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
  • Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin (2 votes)
  • Olivia by Ian Falconer
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad, No Good Day by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz
  • Trosclair & the Alligator by Peter Huggins and Lindsey Gardiner

Sunday, September 13, 2009

It Impends

I don't know why, but I've always liked the sound of the word, "impend." Derived from a Latin word meaning " to hang over" or "to suspend over," it's almost onomatopoeic, for one thing. A bit like "dum-da-dum-dum DUM!" "ImPEND!" See? :-)

An impending event, despite possible danger, always seems weirdly romantic somehow. Like a tornado headed in your direction, it has a push/pull effect. Curiosity makes you want to sneak a look at the twisted thing, but another part of you just wants to dive for cover.

"Depend" is much less interesting, its derivation coming from a word meaning to "hang from." Pendants depend from chandeliers. That could be a big deal, depending upon whether or not you are standing beneath one when a tornado impends.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Writing Music

A snobby co-worker once relayed to me the essential fact that a hemidemisemiquaver is a sixty-fourth note. So if you ever get stuck on an 18-letter word in a crossword puzzle, that's probably the answer.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Blue Jello and Redi-Whip

I began my 10-lesson writing course (the subject of this blog) with the intention of maintaining the discipline that learning requires, but without sacrificing the fun of the journey. I wasn't sure that was possible, but now I know it is. I'm having lots of fun.

The leader of my new writer's group handed me a book by Julia Cameron, The Vein of Gold: A Journey to Your Creative Heart. This is not a book for everyone; in fact, all of it is probably not for any one. It's less like a how-to book and more like a cafeteria: take what you like and pass the rest on by. Two topics that I grabbed eagerly for, the way my children used to grab for the blue Jello and Redi-Whip, were walking and morning writing.

I've been a fan of walking since childhood
. I've also always been a morning person. When I've had my choice, I've written in the morning. All the same, I never would have thought to put these two things together, and in this order: walking in the morning, and then writing--until I read a section of The Vein of Gold. The book doesn't actually say to put them together. This is my discovery and, I think, an improvement on the book.

After you walk or run for 20 minutes, you trigger the release of endorphins, the proverbial "runner's high" that happens to walkers too. You can actually feel it when it happens: a funny sensation at the base of your skull, behind your ears. Walk as long after this as you like, but then go home, get out your pen, and write away. I think you'll be amazed. Sometimes writing in the morning can be like skimming scum off a pond, but this should feel more like riding a jet-ski or diving for pearls in the deep. Try it.


I joined a new writer's group last week, showing up at 6:00 not knowing a soul. I had missed the first meeting the previous week, so everybody else there already knew one another. I was asked to read my work (Assignment #3, in progress) before I learned anything about the others' interests or abilities. At perfect ease, I introduced myself and read my two pages.

There was a time in my life when I wouldn't have had the courage to even show up, much less read my work aloud to total strangers. "Courage?" you say. "Why, that's as easy as falling off a log." Yeah, I know.

It is . . . now.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Schizo on My Shoulder

I've been free-writing daily, or very near daily, for over eight months now. I average about 20 minutes, or four long-hand pages, in addition to the structured writing--the stories and assignments--I do daily.

I've had a hard time convincing myself that free-writing isn't just a waste of time, a selfish indulgence, or worse.

Lately, however, I've noticed my free-writes have become less like "stream-of-consciousness" tomfoolery and more like serious "deep sea diving." For instance, I write more about writing. Character and plot-related ideas come to me more often, interspersed with mutterings of discontent or rants about the weather. I also move more easily from the creative, purely poetic to the logical and sequential, and back. I'm not sure I can explain how this happens, but I have a theory.

Free-writing by definition frees you in many ways: from structure, from an obligation to make sense, from pressure to produce "art," from all the rules of grammar and spelling. In effect, it reduces writing to a state of play. Over a long stretch of time, free-writing gets even freer. Like a clutch on a sports car, it aids the writer's ability to shift smoothly from a state of normal consciousness to artistic consciousness and back again. It actually takes both states to write well--just not at the same time.

The normal consciousness is the old busybody, the editor, who lives and reigns, to a greater or lesser extent, in every successful writer. He's the one that sits on your shoulder and says "'Hemorrhoid' has 2 R's, Dummy!" (He would know!) The artistic consciousness is the trickster on your other shoulder. He plays dumb until the editor's back is turned, and then he spins royal garments from common thread.

Free-writing makes it easy to finally let these two schizos peacefully coexist.