"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Monday, August 30, 2010

I hear people say they’re going to write. I ask, when? They give me vague statements.Indefinite plans get dubious results. When we’re concrete about our writing time, it alleviates that thin constant feeling of anxiety that writers have – we’re barbecuing hot dogs, riding a bike, sailing out in the bay, shopping for shoes, even helping a sick friend, but somewhere nervously at the periphery of our perception we know we belong somewhere else – at our desk!” – Natalie Goldberg
Holly Lisle
In case you're not familiar with Holly Lisle, she's an author who hosts a ginormous web site with many pages of sound advice for writers. One of her latest columns is Could vs. Should and the Price of Your Dreams. In part she writes: " But before you walk away, consider this: If writing is your hunger and your thirst, and if you choose not to follow your dream because you're afraid, you'll pay a price for that, too---you'll pay with the progressive deadening of your soul, as time and your own disillusionment with yourself eat away at who you are. One day you'll wake up and discover that the part of yourself that knew how to dream---and how to fly---has died, and that you are forever after bound to the ground, with only the memory that you once had wings. Every dreamer pays a price. But so does everyone who fears to dream."

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Advice to young writers? Always the same advice: learn to trust our own judgment, learn inner independence, learn to trust that time will sort the good from the bad – including your own bad.” ~ Doris Lessing.
Teach yourself to work in uncertainty.” ~ Bernard Malamud
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't
you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write.

~ W.S. Merwin

Friday, August 27, 2010

"The reader is the most important person with a book. The reader is doing the writer a favor. So any decision that doesn't take the reader into account is a bad decision. Holding back information because you're uncomfortable is just as bad as providing too much information because you want to get something off your chest. Everything has to serve the story." ~ Stephen Elliot
from writer Kimberly Smith-Johnson. Sticky note on my computer screen: "Be observant. Be honest. Move forward."

The sticky note message on my desk (learned from interviewing Natalie Goldberg): Continue under all circumstances. Make positive efforts. Don't be tossed away.
Writing Tip: Beware of using too many mundane activities in fiction as a means to provide proofs of the fictional world. Taking a character through a moment by moment activity such as walking around the house, brushing her teeth, petting the dog, is simply not fiction. We don’t follow characters toing and froing –we watch them in the throes of conflict, passion, and difficulty. Most of us are bored brushing our own teeth—watching it in fiction is dull. Fiction is bigger, more scary and more exciting than life. You need only scattered small moments of mundane actions to provide a believable milieu for a story to unfold in—the rest is snap, crackle and pop. Fiction is not like life, it is life’s greatest hits and biggest tragedies.
Police Procedural
The full moon is still riding high in the sky this morning and cooler weather has arrived in the region. When I edit manuscripts that contain murder scenes or crime elements the problems I notice most often is that the writer gets the details of police procedure wrong. If there is a dead body, somebody is leaning over, touching it without wearing latex gloves and another character is tromping all over the crime scene destroying evidence. Usually a coroner is not present and two lone cops are on scene, puzzling things out. In other words, there is a lot wrong with this picture. Over at the Writtenwyrdd blog D. Lynn Frazier has written an insightful post Officer Mindset: Police Procedural Thoughts for Writers, part 1. Her advice is sound and if you're writing crime scenes you just might want to read her whole series.

Here's an excerpt: So here's the reality:  A cop's focus is on doing the job, but it's also on staying alive.  Cops are not expected to be stupidly  heroic and enter situations where they cannot win.  They call in back up before going into a building.  They stay behind cover to shoot back at the guy who's shot their partner.  They are not, ever, required to jump in front of bullets to save someone else.  In fact, if a cop's partner is down, forgetting to save yourself first reduces the partner's chance of survival.  Because if you both are down, who's going to keep the gun-toting assailant at bay?   The bad guy's already proven he plans on killing you!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Productive people have a love affair with time, with all of love's ups and downs. They get more from time than others, seem to know how to use time much better than nonproductive people--so much so that they can waste immense quantities of time and still be enormously creative and productive. " ~Kenneth Atchity

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


2010 International 3-Day Novel Contest Heads up writers. If you don't have plans for the Labor Day weekend (for those living in the States and Canada) there is still time to register for the 2010 International 3-Day Novel Contest will be held on September 4-6. To enter, download a registration form from the official website.There is an entry fee involved, but also prizes including publication for the first place winner.I would also suggest you check out their Survival Guide.
No matter your plans as summer dwindles, keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Think of everything that happens at the very beginning of a story: The reader makes decisions about the story. They haven’t yet committed to completing it and they are feeling their way around how much they want to commit. Your reader is not a penniless and weary traveler who will be happy to take any bed you can offer. They are discerning, with plenty of money for a night’s sleep and if you show them something uninspired, they’re off to the next inn. You have to work to get them to stay with you.” ~ Brandi Reissenweber
"I wonder which is preferable, to walk around all your life swollen up with your own secrets until you burst from the pressure of them, or to have them sucked out of you, every paragraph, every sentence, every word of them, so at the end you're depleted of all that was once as precious to you as hoarded gold, as close to you as your skin - everything that was of the deepest importance to you, everything that made you cringe and wish to conceal, everything that belonged to you alone - and must spend the rest of your days like an empty sack flapping in the wind, an empty sack branded with a bright fluorescent label so that everyone will know what sort of secrets used to be inside you?" ~ Margaret Atwood

Monday, August 23, 2010

Lauren Kessler Interview  
I once heard you speak on immersion journalism after Dancing with Rose was published. Could you describe how the process worked in some of your books and the importance of your working methods?
All writers are immersed in their work, of course, but for me, immersion has a particular and distinct meaning.It is the way I learn about – and learn from – the worlds I want to illuminate for readers. In My Teenage Werewolf the world is that of the 21st century teen, the cultural, emotional, psychological, even neurological world teen girls inhabit as well as the intense and tumultuous world of mother-daughter relationships. Immersion, as I practice it is a cultural anthropologist’s tool, and mindset…an active, intense observation that continues for so long or is done in such a way that the observer fades into the background. So – after I read just about every advice book written for mothers of teen girls and books and articles and research about the teen brain, and after I interviewed teachers, therapists, psychologists, counselors, coaches, mothers and teens—I immersed myself. I became kind of a Margaret Mead in Middle School. I spent 18 months in classrooms and locker rooms and lunchrooms, on playing fields and field trips. I also did a stint as a counselor at my daughter’s summer camp, spent too much time at malls and, with the help of my daughter, entered various online worlds inhabited by teens.

You seem to be a writer who is guided by your interests and passions such as writing Dancing with Rose about an Alzheimer’s home after your mother died from the illness. How did you decide to write the My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, A Daughter, a Journey Through the Thicket of Adolescence

I say that My Teenage Werewolf would not have been possible – or necessary – without my daughter.  I didn’t so much “decide” to write the book as I was compelled to.  I saw, I felt, the storms brewing. My daughter was moving from adolescent to teen.  She was pulling away. She was not my knowable little girl any more.  Our relationship had become stormy and tumultuous, and I thought the bonds between us were straining terribly.  My mother and I had become estranged during my own teen years, and I didn’t want history to repeat itself.  And so this book, this project – and the blog we continue to write together – was my effort to bring us closer, to understand her world and strengthen the bond between us.

I understand you followed your daughter around as you worked on this book, attending her various activities. What are the main understandings you acquired about your daughter’s life and contemporary teens?

Ha!  So many.  246 pages worth.  Lets see:  How tough it is to sit through seven hours of middle school every day! (I had to leave after 4th period to get a double-shot latte to make it through the afternoon). Okay…more seriously:  How (unfortunately) sophisticated teens are about the dark side of life.  There is so little innocence, even at 12.  What a mess the teen brain is and how much of the crazy, explosive, mercurial, obstinate behavior of teens can be attributed to a still-under-constructive pre-frontal cortex.  How absolutely vital it is for girls to push back against their mothers, to find a space for themselves that is theirs alone. How empowering your daughter can change everything.

I’ve enjoyed your daughter’s posts on your joint blog. How is your daughter reacting to the book and the blog project?
About the book…she is pleased and proud (although would never say so) that she is a main character in a book, that her life, her thoughts, her insights, important enough to put in a book.  She is also embarrassed and hopes, prays, that none of her friends reads the book.

How has your relationship changed?
 Let me count the ways…•  We talk more and argue less.  The “dueling” mother-daughter blog we started after I finished the manuscript for the book gives us opportunities to interact as equals, to think through our opinions and see how they match (or don’t) each other’s. It’s also a shared activity.  And it’s even fun.•       Often (but of course, not always) we are now able to see the humor in some conflict we find ourselves embroiled in.  It’s not all about girding our loins and doing battle. The book and the blog have given us some perspective.• My respect for Lizzie—her strength of character, her feistiness, her, well, authenticity – really grew through the life of the project.  She knows that.  I mean, she can read that on almost every page of the book, and I think that knowledge has deepened how we feel about each other. 

How do you take risks with your writing?
I choose subjects that challenge me intellectually and emotionally.  I force myself to slow down, to immerse and surround and drown in the material, to let understanding grow ... not to jump at it, not to try to make sense too quickly.  It’s uncomfortable to feel overwhelmed and confused.  But for me, it’s a vital part of the process.  I force myself to stay honest even when (maybe especially when) honesty doesn’t make me look so very wonderful.

What books are on your nightstand?
I am currently reading A.J. Jacobs’ The Know-It-All, which is witty and fun and is providing me with clever small talk (like where “the dog days” of summer comes from and the derivation of Jujubes, the candy).  The to-read pile is, in order: The Imperfectionists (my one novel, sturm und drang at a struggling London newspaper), From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor (reissue of classic 1970 Madison Avenue send-up), Nothing to be Frightened Of (the amazing Julian Barnes on mortality), Savor (Thict Nhat Hanh on mindful eating…I need help!), The Call of Solitude. 

What are you working on now?
I am in the midst of promotion for My Teenage Werewolf (Now, in addition to what authors have long done – readings and events, interviews – there’s blogging and guest blogging, facebooking, tweeting, linking, cross-linking and generally driving yourself crazy).  My public events are listed on my author website (including Powell’s/ Burnside, Sept. 13 and Third Place Books/ Seattle, Sept. 14.)
I’m also working on two magazine pieces unrelated to the book (welcome distractions both in terms of content and form).  And, of course, I am working on the next book project – very much in the confused, overwhelmed and drowning phase.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

When you think you’ve gone too far, go deeper.” ~Terry Tempest Williams 
Deep Reading
Ever since I started teaching writers I've been recommending that they read like a writer. With deliberate analysis, always trying to understand the author's techniques and choices.  However, with the Internet and cell phones and all the headlines, emails,  and tidbits blasted at readers daily, the habit of deep reading is being lost which is unfortunate since deep reading is good for the brain. Last night on NPR an interview with Dr. MARYANNE WOLF (Director, Center for Reading and Language Research, Tufts University) elucidated this problem.
Here's an excerpt of the interview: 
CORNISH: So give us the basic definition. What is deep reading and why does it matter?
Ms. WOLF: Deep reading refers to a whole continuum of processes that include some of the most important things about thinking and how we connect thought to what we read - critical analysis, analogical reasoning, how we infer from the text, how do we take another's perspective.
I think to answer your question in a more liberated way, I want to step back and say that we weren't born to read. We were born to speak, we were born to see and eat and do these wonderful things, but not to read.
CORNISH: Really? After the cave drawings and everything?
Ms. WOLF: Oh.
CORNISH: I thought we were sort of naturally inclined.
Ms. WOLF: No, and that's exciting. And I won't say that the cave drawings weren't a part of this growth of symbolic processes. It's a beautiful example of surface reading, if you want to make that kind of analogy. But what we do as children is that we start to learn how to think and connect our thoughts to that surface reading. That's where the deep reading process start forming.
And they don't come just all of the sudden; they're developed over time and years of formation, Audie. So that's one of the big questions in all this: will the young child, with that brand new reading circuit, invest the time it takes over years to get all these beautiful deep reading processes automatic and part of the whole?
Recommended book: 
I just finished reading Undiscovered Country for the second time by Lin Enger. While I enjoyed the story the first time, during this reading I especially savored the language and themes. The narrative template comes from Hamlet and my book group has read two other Hamlet-based novels The Dead Father's Club and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. I suggested Undiscovered Country to complete the trio and talk about how each author worked with the same themes.  Of the three, Enger's book stands on its own the best especially since some of the scenes in Sawtelle seemed contrived to fit into Hamlet's story. It's fascinating how Shakespeare's plays still influence us and the story of Hamlet and his tale of revenge, psychological turmoil, and indecision remains a powerful one, in all its forms. And the crystalline frozen Minnesota setting was a perfect place for the drama to unfold. The author said: The world I write about in Undiscovered Country couldn’t be more familiar to me—the woods and gorgeous lakes, ice-fishing and blizzards, hunting, long dark winter nights, and small-town secrets.

Enger who taught Hamlet to his students at  Minnesota State University also said: I loved the raw intensity of the story.Hamlet is betrayed, losing nearly everyone he is close to. I didn't want to rewrite the story exactly, but its essence had a real emotional power I was drawn to, and I wanted to investigate the play's themes in a modern setting. Also, for those of you who write slow, it took him more than seven years to write the book, longhand.

 Here's an excerpt: Getting even, I think, is the most natural thing in the world, a physical law, like gravity. Somebody hits you, what do you do? Hates you? What do you do? There was this little toy that my dad had when I was small. I think it was called Newton’s cradle. He kept it on his desk in the basement. A line of five steel balls hung suspended, each by two strings, within a wooden frame. When you lifted a ball at one end and dropped it against its neighbor, the force of the strike transferred itself through the line of balls, causing the one at the other end to rise. When that one dropped, the original ball on the opposite end rose again. And so it went. If there were no such thing as friction, the back-and-forth motion would have gone on forever.

Most people, of course, don’t act on their thoughts of revenge. I realize that. But I’d argue that one way or another, they do manage to purge them. They snap at their wives or husbands, kick the dog, eat the last slice of pizza, curse the driver in front of them, disparage their co-workers. 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

I just asked people on Facebook what they do on Saturdays. For most of my adult life I've worked on Saturdays so when I have one off it seems like a long stretch of luxury. What do you do on Saturdays? If you write fiction what does your protagonist do on Saturdays?

Beautiful Sentence 
"...Or like the lone female loon who mistook a wet moonlit interstate for water and crash-landed on the truck-grooved pavement of the fast lane; loon to whom I sprinted, as a convoy of eighteen-wheelers roared towards her, throwing my coat over her head so she wouldn't stab me, pulling her to my chest as I leapt from the concrete; loon, who when she felt this blind liftoff let out a full, far-northern tremolo that pierced, without stabbing, my coat, ribs, heart, day, life... Till even alone, and in darkness, with no special hat, clothes, or wings to help me fly up and feel it, I find myself caught in the endless act of being loved..." Cherish this ecstasy ~David James Duncan~

Ok, it's two sentences, but I'll never forget them.  The Best American Essays, edited by Mary Oliver  (2009) submitted by Chloe De Segonzac

Friday, August 20, 2010

Beautiful sentence entry
from Connie Yan:
But now she’s thirty-seven and a mother of three, and even over the phone, you can hear the varicose veins in her voice.  (Chapter One of The Book of Joe by Jonathan Tropper)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Writers and Risk  
And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. Anaïs Nin
I'm writing a column about risk.I'm writing it because brave and beautiful writers are often afraid to write the truth of their lives, their hearts, and to especially express their grief and regrets. I'm writing it because over the years I've heard so many writers say something like, "I just cannot write a memoir because my mother would never speak to me again." (Or substitute father,sister, husband, brother) But we cannot wait around for family members to die to set down our  truths and sorrows. Neither can we write out of vengeance or desperation. If you have a story about how you risked something via your writing, please contact me.
"Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people's myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts - but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. Myth tells you what the experience is." ~ Joseph Campbell (from The Power of Myth)
Short Take
Place powerful words at the end of sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters for emphasis. Example from the opening sentence of  Peter Robinson's Innocent Graves: The night it all began, a thick fog rolled down the dale and enfolded the town of Eastvale in its shroud.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Most Beautiful Sentence
I'd like to hear from you folks on your vote for the most beautiful sentence written. I'm going to use your entries in a workshop I'm teaching with Sage Cohen in Manzanita, Oregon on October 23 (more info coming).
My entry: There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.from Chapter Three of The Great Gatsby
Please contact me at jessicapage(at)spiritone(dot) com or on Facebook.
Keep writing beautiful sentences, keep dreaming, have heart

Going Home 
Overcast skies this morning and the heat wave is finally over. I was at a neighborhood pool last night as a new weather front swept in along with clouds and marine air. Every month I write a column for the Willamette Writers newsletter. I thought I'd post my latest column here because it applies to so many writers.  

Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days ~Doug Larson

Last month I went home to the small town in northern Wisconsin where I lived until I was fourteen. The occasion was my father’s 80th birthday and I found a place changed by time, and sometimes as I drove down the streets it seemed that I was seeing it for the first time because the reality of this place doesn’t match what exists in my memory and dreams.

I experienced the biggest gap between now and memory when at night the fireflies didn’t appear with their tiny inner lanterns. An uncle suggested they liked open meadows, a brother said they had them in their Illinois backyard. I since have learned that their best habitat includes standing water and long grass, and since the house I grew up in a house located near a creek and surrounded by meadows, I understand why I didn’t spot any in the town, city, and lakesides that we stayed in. But I was disappointed since I live in the West where fireflies mostly don’t exist and they were everywhere at night when I was a girl, they were part of dusk, part of dark, lighting the shadows and night and our gladiator arena where we played nighttime games and laughed about ghosts and spooks.

As writers we all need to return in memory to the places of childhood or our roots because without memory our writing cannot represent us fully and cannot be well-charged with emotion and sensory detail. We need to visit our origins to understand this queer pastime we’ve chosen, the reasons for why we became a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging and re-arranging words. Because going home illuminates our grown-up lives and if you’re a writer there are no forgotten children and there is always shelter and sky and seasons.

Even without knowing it, we all write from a sense of place and from the jumble of our pasts. And in these pasts were our confused emotions and hurts and secrets, the seed or source of our writing.Going home you can find your first literary idols and the library with its smell of books and wood and rain. You can find the specificity of detail that brings a place, and thus a story to life. Going home you might find the haunts and shadows, or the impetus for your feral imagination.

But we can never truly recover our pasts, not even if we have reams of photographs and grainy films and boxes of childhood trophies. But we can search for them, and we can use sojourns into the land of memory as inspiration, or even a road map for writing. Memory and storytelling are as linked as right hand, left hand joining forces on a keyboard to shape words. We can trace our family dynamics or our cousin’s family dynamics into a story remembering if things were tense or easygoing or if secrets lurked. We can mine the senses, feel the intensity of times past, especially feelings of vulnerability or not knowing.

Unspooling the past we recognize how it adds life and energy to our writing. That writing from experience, even if it’s emotional experiences, as opposed to actual experiences, has huge value. You ask yourself questions like why your eight-year-old self wrote spy stories or horror tales and about your simple desire to tell stories.

From the safe perch of adulthood I look back at the girl I was with all her longings, passions, and black-hearted jealousies. I can feel the keys of my Royal typewriter I owned as a girl, can see the desk I sat at, filled with such importance that I had my own desk, my own place to write. I find my clumsy metaphors, my girlhood griefs, the big and small cruelties of childhood, the words stuck or stalled in my throat, the bottled-up anger at small and large injustices, the insecurities and obsessions, the joys of running along the creek and playing games of make-believe, the breadcrumbs that lead to my starting point as a writer.

When going home you find the music of previous eras the songs that tug you back in time yet live on, the lyrics you don’t forget, representative of a heartbreak or a first love, or the giddiness of youth. It’s all there, the richness and texture and tangle of memory, the old and retold stories. At times the soft edges of the past and sharp lines of the present clash and groan like ice breaking up in the spring. And as we write from memory, more memories arrive, and with memory comes associations and inspirations and more stories. And we find patterns, sometimes they’ve gone unnoticed for years, threading through events and truths and discoveries.

But mostly when you go home, you see stories, a narrative, everywhere in the remembered and the now. Stories practically grow on trees and swim in the familiar air. The air of my past is heated and bathed in humidity and my grown up body finds these temperatures unbearable, but the baked summers of my childhood were spent in creeks and rivers, not air conditioning and summer arriving always returns me to childhood. Of course we’ve changed from that person of past decades.

It’s natural to grow and evolve and have new strivings and yearnings. But retrieve why you became a writer in the first place. The why of your writing self. Become a detective, a seeker after the treasure of your desires. Go home to make peace with your past, with the pains and sorrows and lessons of all that was. This is not a sentimental journey, rather it’s an un-rosy pilgrimage, a necessary voyage. Driving through my former hometown the streets were unpeopled and sleepy, the yards unoccupied, the windows blank. It seemed like a sound stage, when it wasn’t amplified by emotions and memories.

The downtown is now mostly cell phone stores, secondhand shops, and auto parts stores. Missing was the J.C.Penney department store, the Woolworths and Ben Franklin, the shoe stores, dress stores, the daily newspaper office, the mom and pop bakeries, and family-owned diners. While the downtown has withered, the town has blossomed on the outer edges near a freeway exit with chain motels, a Subway, McDonalds, a Wal Mart where you’ll find more people than anywhere else, a Piggly Wiggly, Dollar Store and Hallmark store.

But there is still the majestic court house with its four-sided clock, the many graceful churches planted amid quiet neighborhoods, the library where I spent so much time as a girl which now houses some of my books. The legacy of the forest industry visible in the blocks of grand historic homes as well as in the forests that surround the town. The Wisconsin River winds through the town, splashing over rocks and dams before joining the Mississippi.When I think back it’s the place where the sound of rivers and streams have slipped into my blood, a place for a writer. We all know that time changes us and places and things, but for writers the question is how.

Monday, August 16, 2010

"Poetry gives suffering a direction. It uplifts our small moments to monumental ones, and gives our readers an opportunity to move through pain, revelation and catharsis with us." ~Sage Cohen

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Options for publishing
I just received an email from a student yesterday with the information that one of her books is going to be published as an e-book. There are so many options for publishing these days and the publishing industry is changing so fast that it's hard to keep up with things. Here's a link that explores your publishing options. The author of this blog is an editor in a publishing house and a former editorial assistant and I've always found her advice and information first rate.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Story Corps Questions
If you're not familiar with Story Corps you might want to check out these wonderful segments produced on NPR. The producers have created a list or provocative questions that can lead to meaningful conversations and stories here.
You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” ~ Jack London

Friday, August 13, 2010

The act of writing itself leads us on a path into the unknown. One step unfolds into another, and we are led into the mapless territory of the imagination where all things are possible. It is a real place, and it is inside of us.” Michael Toms

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Writing Prompt
Write a paragraph or two or three that takes place just before dawn. In this predawn world, some mystery or foreboding or  wonder must exist. Is someone sleeping? Has an intruder appeared? Are we in a city or woods or far out at sea? Perhaps a military raid is about to unfold/explode. What does the sky look like? What phase is the moon in? Who is creeping about?
Question about your writing voice:
What is the language of your life? How does it represent your roots, your passions and pains?

Deeper than Silence
As writers we're often called upon to describe the indescribable or difficult. Over the weekend while teaching workshops I suggested to my students that they develop their skills to compare things in writing. Comparisons add power and resonance to our stories, so I often ask myself, what does this remind me of.

In my book Between the Lines I describe it this way: Comparing and contrasting are basics to all communications. When you use figurative language, your descriptions soar, meaning is reinforced, and music is added to your pages. Figurative language means that you’re comparing two unlike things to lend meaning to the compared object, person, or place. This method takes the reader beyond ordinary description and creates energy and excitement. Figurative language comes in several forms: simile, metaphor, and personification. No matter what device you use, your purpose is always clarity. 

  Last night I was at the Japanese Garden here in Portland--a lovely little haven--for the O-Bon ceremony. This is how it's described: O-Bon is a Buddhist memorial festival that dates back more than thousand years. Over a three-day period in mid-summer, families gather to pray for the spirits of their ancestors. It is an annual reminder of the importance of family ties, of respect for those who have gone before, and of the brevity and preciousness of our lives together.

After watching Japanese folk dances, we were ushered down to a pond as dusk fell. We'd each been given a small white candle in a container and then one by one, volunteers set each candle afloat in the pond. The night was windless, the skies cloudless, and the names of the dead were read out loud. I stood there listening to the trickle of a spring in the hush, watching the candle flames growing in number. Around the pond, the garden was layered in green, some trees turning toward gold, evergreens towering as the final layer. And I asked myself what the moment reminded me of and the words deeper than silence came to me.

I was thinking about my grandfather, dead now forty years, as my candle drifted into the night. Three days ago he came to me in a dream, dying or gravely injured on my doorstep and I was so shocked and frightened by his appearance in the dream that I could scarcely react. I've been mulling over the dream since then. And as my friend and I left the garden, the reverence and quiet of the place still clinging to us, I remarked that the dead are always with us. And so they are.

Keep writing, keep noticing, have heart 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Underrated  Writers
Here's a list of underrated writers from Publisher's Weekly blog. Congratulations and big props Rigoberto Gonzalez and Cheryl Strayed--not for being unappreciated, but for receiving the recognition they deserve. But why is Mary Gaitskill on the list?

Blood, Roses, Mosquitoes 
As promised, here's an excerpt from the workshop I taught at the Willamette Writers Conference on writing with details. 
     In my work, what happens too often, instead of the sense that I’m entering a story world when I read a manuscript, I feel like I’m plowing through a pile of words that don’t add up to something magical called story
     Now, I could spout off about wavering tone, or narrative slackness, or try to explain why a manuscript too often feels like murky fog bank where the characters bounce around for no fathomable reasons, or I could complain about saccharine tales with clunky morals. But the first reason I won’t believe in a story is because it’s not alive. Readers want an experience when they open the pages of a book, and most are yearning for escape. 
     Many writers scatter a sense detail here or there when, instead, they need to use them throughout the story, especially during important scenes. Without sensory details and powerful description, a reader cannot settle into a story because it is too spare. A lack of adequate sensory detail, also creates confusion. Your story line is the map of events that takes readers from beginning to end, but sensory information fills in the map so readers can follow the story’s trajectory and not get lost when he reaches a new road or stops at a breathtaking vista. So let’s talk about how you can make this happens. 
Begin with the Tangible There are many places to begin a story—with a character, a dialogue exchange, a crisis like a deep plunge into the icy lake of storytelling. But no matter if you start a story with two elderly women stumbling onto a corpse while walking along the shore or the long-ago memory of the night your stepfather moved into your house, here’s a foundation from where you can always begin: all stories must start with the artifacts of everyday life. A reader wants to enter the story world you’re describing in the same way that he enters his house at the end of the workday. The sensory details of the real world have a potent and reassuring reality. 
     Similarly, when we open a book or enter a story we want to be welcomed there with the reassuring artifacts of reality. The reader will find himself wandering around in the story noticing the new snow frosting the fir trees, or the peculiar, musty smell of your grandmother’s attic, or the chilly, labyrinth passages of a thirteenth century castle. So for now, let’s ignore the many adages about writing and simply concede that art is in the details. And the biggest job of details is to stir emotions in the reader. The more senses you use in your story, the more you’ll affect your reader.
     Sensory details pierce the reader’s heart and mind, creep into his imagination, and set off mini-explosions of understanding. Sensory description contributes to every part to every part of storytelling and stirs the reader’s memory, helps him make connections, and experience the story emotionally and physically. Thus life is breathed into fiction and memoir by translating the senses onto the page, producing stories rooted in the physical world. Action and dialogue arrest the reader’s attention, but sensory details assure the reader that they’re actually occurring. That means blood, roses, and mosquitoes or whatever proofs your story demands.  
Blood: to stir emotions As we discussed, one of the big jobs of description is to evoke emotions. Unless you’re a surgeon, few of us encounter blood regularly in our daily lives. Blood is natural, blood is also freaky when it comes from a beating or accident, blood is symbolic, and blood is vivid. Blood is usually used by writers when they’re pulling out the stops to evoke fear or horror. But obviously you cannot go for the gusto in every scene, so when you write scenes ask yourself each time, “what do I want my readers to feel in this moment?” As you ponder this question, seed the scenes with sensory details that bring about emotions. In life, there are good reasons for our skin to crawl or our hearts to race—the loud bang or phone call in the middle of the night. The friend who phones weeping. A child’s illness. A co-worker accuses you unjustly. In stories we’re trying to install those same effects in the reader. 
     So we add the shrieks, the sinister suggestion, the betrayal. And details push these emotional reactions into the reader’s nervous system. After all, there’s a good reason why spooky stories or scenes take place during a dark and stormy night. When the heavens are shrieking with thunder, lightening is slashing the inky sky, and we’re huddling in our homes, the elements can bring on feelings of vulnerability and unease. Anything can happen when nature is rampaging in real life and in fiction, and details are the key to bringing about emotions.  
  Roses: to bring the familiar to life. Because most readers are bombarded with a nonstop media onslaught in daily life, it’s especially important that your details are selective and persuasive. And often a few small details, carefully chosen can convey reality. It’s also necessary that the familiar is convincing in a story. If the scene that takes place in a living room in your story includes an overflowing ash tray and lumpy couch and unframed posters on the wall, and other artifacts that we recognize, then we’ll believe in whatever else happens in the scene. So that if a couple argues or one person threatens divorce in that room we’re more likely to believe in their actions because we can smell the ashtray and the despair that permeates the place.  
Mosquitoes:to convince, especially when the story has an exotic setting and to show consequences.Most of us have encountered the tiny Kamikazes of the insect world. If you’re hiking, barbecuing in the backyard, camping, or merely trying to sleep at night when one or two have infiltrated your bedroom, you know what capable torturers mosquitoes are. You know what if feels like to be prey. When they’re buzzing around your tent you believe. Details are the mosquitoes of writing. The more exotic your setting—a planet in a far galaxy, a fairy kingdom, Ireland in the 17th century—the more details are necessary to anchor the reader to this outlandish story place.
     Details, like mosquitoes also prove the consequences of events. After a mosquito bites you’re left with the annoying,itchy swelling (which is from the mosquito’s saliva). Similarly in stories, icy weather should bring shivers and layers of wool; heat waves make people cranky; darkness makes characters more uncertain and vulnerable; smoke stings the eyes; cheeseburgers are usually greasy and filling; cell phones have individual ring tones; and perfumes can intoxicate or choke. If the protagonist drinks too many beers he becomes stupid, clumsy, and loggy and he should wake up the next morning feeling like hell. Make your readers itch.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Strive for honesty, but admit that you can delude yourself as well as the next guy. Ironically, it is this skepticism that uniquely equips the personal essayist for the difficult climb into honesty. So often the ‘plot’ of a personal essay, its drama, its suspense, consists in watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty. One may speak of a vertical dimension in the form: if the essayist can delve further underneath, until we feel the topic has been handled as honestly, as fairly as possible, then at least one essential condition of a successful personal essay has been met.” ~ Philip Lopate
"Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer." ~ Barbara Kingsolver
Quick Take
What is your protagonist's greatest fear? Can you put it at stake in the story? 

We are indebted to the almost great books. We need them. They deserve more respect. For one thing, they are indispensable to the process of literary judgment. There can be no canon without the less-than-canonical. Only by reading prolifically and promiscuously can we can decide which books deserve rereading—for that is the most tangible criterion for discriminating between the great and the merely good. ~ David Born, Common Review editor

Monday, August 09, 2010

Writing Your Heart
And here is a fabulous example of creative nonfiction, Sustenance,  an essay written by Kerry Cohen about her son and pica. This story just peeled the lining off my heart and mothers out there you might want to check out Literary Mama as a market for your stories. 

I love gossiping with writers about the writing life, writers we know, those we wish we knew, those we secretly emulate. And then there is that category of overrated writers/authors and those who make gazillions on books that just hurt our eyes and make us shake our heads in  disbelief at the wisdom or tastes of humankind.  Here is a list of The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary Writers by Anis Shivani at The Huffington Post. 

I love this point: "If we don't understand bad writing, we can't understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself. These writers have betrayed the legacy of modernism, not to mention postmodernism. They are uneasy with mortality. On the great issues of the day they are silent (especially when they seem to address them, like William T. Vollmann). They desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded. They are the unreadable Booth Tarkingtons, Joseph Hergesheimers, and John Herseys of our time, earnestly bringing up the rear."

Her list includes Amy Tan ( I so agree), John Ashberry (ditto), Mary Oliver (disagree strongly) and she explains that the writers have a gimmick and are schtick peddlers. 
What do you think?

"When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time." ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Peter Robinson and Tess Gerrissten
Tomorrow is the final day of the Willamette Writers Conference and I'll be teaching a workshop on writing with details called Blood, Roses, and Mosquitoes. I'll post some of the information about this workshop and some of my other workshops in the next week or so. The conference has been great--lots of interesting, energized people learning lots about the craft and business of writing. I've especially enjoyed meeting new people and catching up with some of my students and local authors. My favorite part of the conference is hallway conversations and sharing a meal or glass of wine and chatting about life and all things writing.

But meanwhile, I'm awake in the middle of the night to craft a few memos for writers I'm meeting with tomorrow and wanted to pass along this link to a great interview with Peter Robinson and Tess Gerristen. I might have mentioned this before, but Peter Robinson is one author that has taught me so much about crafting fiction and working with series characters. His Alan Bank series also made me notice how important it is to create tension in every scene and to use setting elements, inner conflict, outer conflict, personal relationships, and just about every aspect of the fictional world to press on a character's nerves and well being. His characters rarely are allowed to chill out or enjoy life fully--some new case or misery or worry is always confronting them. In this interview both authors give lots of helpful advice on making characters realistic and deep.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Rece$$ionary Good New$
Well, sort of.... In case the recession is screwing with your hopes or bottom line or any part of your life, here's a bit of good news about how bad economic trends are inspiring writers, as reported today by USA Today.
If you're in need of a little luck or whimsy today, check out the charming NPR story about a student who finds four-leaf clovers.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Typewriter Memories
I've been working on my new book again today and had that fabulous experience where the book was crowding out the rest of my thoughts, the voice was coming through just right, and my spine was tingling with excitement. As I was writing a certain chapter I kept remembering a Royal typewriter I owned as a girl. I tried to remember how old I was when I acquired it--I know it was used and a gift from my parents. I'm remembering the thunk of the keys on the paper and the chime of the return and feel of the round keys under my fingers. I can remember the torture of fixing errors and awkwardness of carbon paper and can practically see the smudges on my finger. I know I'm dating myself but the hours laboring over that machine shaped me. And I'm feeling such a wave of nostalgia and longing for my old typewriter and wishing that someone would invent a typewriter-like keyboard, complete with the sound of striking keys. This photo isn't a Royal, but it's a cousin to the one I owned.
Quick Take 
We read fiction to find ourselves and truths about humanity. We write fiction to explore people and emotions and situations we're afraid of. That's right. Write what scares you.
Why I Write
The well-spring of my writing is, as I have mentioned, very private. In the beginning, it was a secret pastime; later, it became a way to express emotions I had no idea what to do with; later still (when I became a freelancer) it was merely a job; and finally it morphed into its present incarnation: daydreaming with a lot of craft brought to bear on what makes it to the page. Anita Shreve, interview in The Guardian
August =watering the garden

My warm-up technique appears to be to waste several hours on the web, waste several more telling myself I’m a fraud, and finally, if I’m lucky, telling myself, oh, hell, just type some words already.” ~Doug Dorst for more on Dorst visit The Rumpus Book Club and a discussion of  his second book, The Surf Guru.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

More Summer Books 
This morning on NPR librarian Nancy Pearl is talking about must-read books that sometimes fall under the radar. Pearl is the author of Book Lust among other books.  The books all sound fabulous and I've come to trust her judgment about stories and language. Her choices include: 
Instead of a Letter, Anita Athill 
Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin 
Last Night in Montreal, Emily St. John Mandel 
The Lotus Eaters, Tajana Sol
Blood Harvest, S. J. Bolton
Miss Hargreaves, Frank Baker
Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay
Words for Empty Words for Full, Bob Hicok

And here are the first two paragraphs of Last Night in Montreal:
No one stays forever. On the morning of her disappearance Lilia woke early, and lay still for a moment in the softness of sheets. It was the last day of October. She slept naked.

Eli was up already, and working on his thesis; while he was typing up yesterday's research notes he heard the sounds of awakening, the rustling of the duvet, her bare footsteps on the hardwood floor, and she kissed the top of his head very lightly en route to the bathroom — he made an agreeable humming noise, but didn't look up — and the shower started on the other side of the almost-closed door. Steam and the scent of apricot shampoo escaped around the edges. She stayed in the shower for forty-five minutes, but this wasn't unusual; the day was still unremarkable. Eli glanced up briefly when she emerged from the bathroom. Lilia, naked: pale skin wrapped in a soft white towel, short dark hair wet on her forehead, and she smiled when he met her eyes.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Fat-free writing
  • Use the familiar word (house) to the far-fetched or extravagent word (domicile).
  • Use concrete words, rather than abstract.
  • Don't sprinkle your writing with prepositions and prepositional phrases--consider them the carbohydrates of writing. (instead of a book of poetry, poetry book, or poems)
  • Cut adverbs ending in -ly (He sprinted quickly for the bus. He sprinted for the bus.)
  • If you or a character can see or notice something you don't need to announce it. Instead of "ahead, I could see the river raging in front of me" simply write the river raged ahead.
  • Prefer the single word (because) to the phrase or circumlocution.(due to the fact that)
  • Generally use short words if appropriate or the meaning is the same. (numerous, many, initial, first, attempt, try).
  • Avoid starting sentences with There was, There were, It was, etc.  
  • Avoid using very and quite. Always.
  • Avoid appending up to verbs--stand up, free up, head up, etc.
  • Use Anglo-Saxon words since they tend to have more heft than Latin, Greek, or Romance language words (fire, not conflagration).
"The urge to publish is a hunger. The drive to write and the drive to publish are virtually the same thing, at least for me. They both come from somewhere deep. Like the drive for sex, they can be explained but the explanation is always incomplete."~ Stephen Elliot
Several writers I know are pitching at the Willamette Writer's Conference coming up this weekend at the Portland Airport Sheraton. I'll be there teaching three workshops and meeting with writers about their manuscripts. (And there is still time to sign up)

In case you're struggling with writing a query or pitch, here's a good news story and a pitch that will convince you that this whole process is doable. Because while this is a great pitch (in the form of a query letter), my hunch is that many of you out there in Writer Land can write one just as good. It was written by Amy Plum for her book Sleepwalkers and earned her a hefty advance and a three-book deal with HarperCollins.
Though the literary dabbler may write a fine story now and then, the true writer is one for whom technique has become, as it is for the concert pianist, second nature. ~John Gardner
Drama—what literature does at night. George Jean Nathan
Marine clouds covering the sky this morning. I'm a big believer in routines for writers and keeping firm office hours. I write most days as soon as I get up, in my bathrobe as the world awakens around me. I don't schedule doctor appointments or meetings or even phone calls for these hours. I plant my butt in this chair and stay here. A regular writing routine also signals your subconscious, your writing ally, that you're serious about your goals. And then the subconscious kicks in and the writing gets easier.  For a sampling of routines of famous authors, check out this blog, soon to be turned into a book. 

Sunday, August 01, 2010

There ares so many punctuation rules, especially for commas, that it's enough to drive a writer batty. Help is on the way at the Brooklyn Arden blog. Note her terrific advice on em dashes.
Meanwhile, keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.
How can it be August already? Yikes, this year is zipping past, makes me want to cling to each day like grabbing the tail of a kite. 

Try this:
One of the big problems with the writing life is finding enough time to accomplish our goals. But amazing progress can be made in small snippets and stolen moments. To prove this to yourself, spend 15 minutes every day for a month polishing an area of your writing that needs improvement.  These practice sessions need not be used on a current writing project, but of course, you might prefer to apply it to a work-in-progress.
 Here is a list of possibilities:
  • Tighten and heighten dialogue leaving out the boring parts of life.
  • Add metaphor or imagery to underline important moments or events that you want to linger in your reader's memory.
  • Write sequels to major scenes, particularly those with trauma, reversals, or violence. 
  • Write a scene using only dialogue.
  • Use lighting, sky, weather in your scenes and transitions.
  • Unify the beginning and ending.
  • Practice writing a viewpoint or dialogue of a character whose age is much removed from your own.
  • Make certain that your transitions explain why a new topic is being introduced, or where the story has shifted in time, place or mood.
  • Use summary to condense necessary information.
  • Create vivid, brief descriptions of secondary characters.
  • Use setting descriptions to create mood.
  • Use setting details to define a character.
  • Create descriptions that are embedded in action.
  • Design a fight scene or argument where the action boils over into emotional intensity.
  • Write for all the senses, including the sense of smell.