"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, December 31, 2007

The sky is pale gray and fog is still hanging on. I’m working on my monthly column and listening to NPR’s Morning Edition and they’re reporting how “rock snot,” a type of algae, that is invading streams throughout the country. Apparently in recent years this aggressive strain is now on the loose and anglers who move from stream to stream are spreading the problem.

On Saturday I bent over to slip on my shoes and my back went out and since then moving, especially from sitting to standing, has been a big problem and the pain is like several knives in my low back. It’s given me pause to think about how I take my mobility for granted most of the time and how old age must feel for a lot of people. In the past few days if I drop something, it stays on the floor. And in a typical day I walk up and down my stairs dozens of times. Uh, I’m staying put, unless I need to press a bag of frozen peas on the pain. Now, I’ve had back problems for years so am never oblivious or take a pain-free day for granted. But it seems to me that it’s helpful to be limited for a while so you can appreciate when you feel better. So I’m going to limp into the new year and wanted to wish anyone who reads this a healthy new year and that peace prevails.

And I wanted to post a few quotes about writing, because I find so much inspiration from other writers and hope you do too.

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. ~Ray Bradbury

I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all. ~Richard Wright, American Hunger, 1977

I try to leave out the parts that people skip. ~Elmore Leonard

If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it. ~Toni Morrison

It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop. ~Vita Sackville-West

Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind. ~Catherine Drinker Bowen, Atlantic, December 1957

A writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right. ~John K. Hutchens, New York Herald Tribune, 10 September 1961

Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it. ~Hannah Arendt

The ablest writer is only a gardener first, and then a cook: his tasks are, carefully to select and cultivate his strongest and most nutritive thoughts; and when they are ripe, to dress them, wholesomely, and yet so that they may have a relish. ~Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare, Guesses at Truth, by Two Brothers, 1827

Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression. The chasm is never completely bridged. We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper. ~Isaac Bashevis Singer

Friday, December 28, 2007

The rain has stopped, the snows promised in the Willamette Valley yesterday mostly landed in the higher elevations, and the sky is a smorgasbord of clouds obscuring blue.

I’ve just turned another revised chapter into my editor and am trying to rethink the remaining chapters. As the year winds down, I’m thinking about what I’ve accomplished in the past months, what lies ahead, and the components of the writing life. Years ago I read novelist Oakley Hall’s How Fiction Works and in his introduction he included a list of writing tips. Since I agree with them all, and in fact, many are the basis for what I teach, I thought I’d pass them along.

  1. Write every day.
  2. Observe and listen.
  3. Employ all the senses.
  4. Use strong verbs.
  5. Detail!
  6. A specific always beats an abstraction.
  7. Describe in motion.
  8. Anglo-Saxon words are usually more effective than romance based.
  9. Fiction is dramatization; dramatization is point of view, sense impressions, details, action and dialogue.
  10. In dialogue, keep speeches sort.
  11. Look for likenesses, parallels, contrasts, antitheses and reversals.
  12. Beware the use of habitual case (would) the passive voice and the word there.
  13. Plotting is compulsion versus obstacles.
  14. In the second draft, start deleting adverbs.
  15. Borrow widely, steal wisely.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Dusk is falling and the winter solstice is hours away. This time of year everything has a silver hue, the sky outlined against bare, silvery branches, stalks in the garden also cast like metal. I don’t know about you, but I always try to imagine the ancient astronomers and wise men and women who first figured out that this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere that the earth was tilted farthest away from the sun. And once they recognized this celestial event, how did the word of it spread? What is known is that a huge number of ancient civilizations built temples, cairns, observatories and such aligned with the solstices and equinox. It was celebrated from Scotland to Tibet, from Pakistan to North America. Solstice means standing still sun and I love the peacefulness of this day, the sense that something magnificent has shifted.

I was home wrapping presents a few nights ago and listening to various radio stations. John Henry Faulk’s Christmas story was broadcast on our local NPR station. If you’ve never heard it or read it the transcript for it is at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5028755

It’s a story best enjoyed listened to in Faulk’s amazing voice. Here are the first two paragraphs: The day after Christmas a number of years ago, I was driving down a country road in Texas. And it was a bitter cold, cold morning. And walking ahead of me on the gravel road was a little bare-footed boy with non-descript ragged overalls and a makeshift sleeved sweater tied around his little ears. I stopped and picked him up. Looked like he was about 12 years old and his little feet were blue with the cold. He was carrying an orange.

And he got in and had the brightest blue eyes one ever saw. And he turned a bright smile on my face and says, "I'm-a going down the road about two miles to my cousins. I want to show him my orange old Santa Claus brought me." But I wasn't going to mention Christmas to him because I figured he came from a family -- the kind that don't have Christmas. But he brought it up himself. He said, "Did old Santa Claus come to see you, Mister?" And I said, "Yes. We had a real nice Christmas at our house and I hope you had the same."

I have a single candle burning in my window these days. Welcome Yule to all!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Scattered clouds with occasional patches of blue and more rain promised for today. I believe that this time of year it’s always fun to look back at the best movies, books, music, stories, that linger in the memory or have somehow made an impact.

Yesterday on NPR Fresh Air's book critic Maureen Corrigan’s reported that her favorite fiction of 2007 included Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs, Min Jin Lee's Free Food for Millionaires, and Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O'Nan. Her nonfiction picks: The Mistress' Daughter, by A.M. Homes, Thomas Hardy, by Clare Tomalin and Ralph Ellison: A Biography, by Arnold Rampersad

The staff at Publisher’s Weekly have also published their best of 2007 list: “It's the end of the year—almost. A time for reflection, before the resolutions of 2008 send us all scrambling once again. So what did we read this year that kept us up at night, broke our hearts, opened our minds, made us fall in love? Three thousand books are published daily in the U.S., and PW reviewed more than 6,000 of them in 2007, in print and online. From that astounding number, we've culled a best books list covering our favorites in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, comics, religion, lifestyle and children's—150 in all. Some we've selected, such as Tree of Smoke, Fieldwork, Brother, I'm Dying and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, are up for National Book Awards; others have been blessed by Oprah (The Secret) or are a testament to DNA (Heart-Shaped Box). Some made us think about the music of the past (Can't Buy Me Love; Coltrane) or shiver in our boots (Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA); some, to paraphrase Kafka, just broke that frozen sea inside us.” For their picks go to: http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6496987.html

The New York Times Sunday Review has also weighed in with the 10 Best Books of 2007. Their choices are: Man Gone Down, by Michael Thomas, Out Stealing Horses, Per Patterson, The Savage Detectives, Roberto BolaƱo, Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris, and Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson. In nonfiction they selected: Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, Rajiv Changdrasekaran, Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression, Mildred Armstrong Kalish, The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, Jeffrey Toobin, The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History, Linda Colley, and The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross.

Here's the list, with links to previously published reviews and features by NPR’s film critic David Edelstein as well as by All Things Considered's Bob Mondello, Morning Edition contributor Kenneth Turan, and other NPR voices:

1. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
2. Away From Her
3. There Will Be Blood
4. Sweeney Todd
5. The Savages
6. No Country for Old Men
7. No End in Sight
8. Michael Clayton
9. Ratatouille*
9. Persepolis*
10. Grace is Gone

Other movies that turned David Edelstein's head:

Private Fears in Public Places
The Host
We Own the Night
Starting Out in the Evening
Lady Chatterley
Gone Baby Gone
Charlie Wilson's War

So what are your favorites from 2007?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Fog smothering the view this morning so the landscape is gradually taking shape through my office window.

When I give talks about writing and publishing I often mention that in the past 40 years or so that there have been a number of mega mergers that have taken place in the industry. Our most famous publishing houses such as Random House, Knopf, Putnam, Scribners, or Simon and Schuster, some which date back to the 1800s, have been transformed from private, family-owned companies to multinational media conglomerates. These mergers began in the 1960s and have come to mean that publishers are focusing on blockbuster sales and are no longer depending on their backlist for steady sales. We also know the Barnes and Noble, Costco, and big distributors have a giant influence in the book business and independent bookstores are fighting to survive.

But of course media mergers have infected every aspect of culture. There are only about a dozen or so major media companies that control what we read, view, and hear—Disney, AOL/Time Warner, Viacom, General Electric, Sony, Bertelsmann AG, Vivendi Universal, AT & T, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and Liberty Media. In radio, Clear Channel owns over 1200 stations.

Now on December 18, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) wants to give these large conglomerates permission to gobble up more media in a single market. This means that in town like Portland one company could own the newspaper and all the television and radio stations. And let’s not forget that this media cartel often has vast ownership in cable television, the Internet, movies and publishing. And if you think that the Internet is still a huge democracy you’d be wrong since its also being gobbled up by corporate media. Not only is FCC trying to change media ownership rules, but they have kept the public in the dark about their plans. In fact the Chairman of the FCC Kenneth Martin, a Republican, has been rushing through the process ignoring the will of the people. Apparently Chairman Martin has a history of working behind closed doors on behalf of media conglomerates.

But this is a bipartisan issue. If these changes go through you and I will be spoonfed a filtered, corporate version of reality and many voices will be silenced, particularly those of women and minorities. Trouble is, the public owns the air waves and the public doesn’t want this to happen. And we don’t want the news cancelled or a steady diet of Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan scandals. Many of us want real news about real issues, and god help us, a big dose of truth. We know that diversity in the media is at the heart of our democracy.

Here is Ted Turner’s take on the situation from a Washington Monthly piece he wrote: “In the media, as in any industry, big corporations play a vital role, but so do small, emerging ones. When you lose small businesses, you lose big ideas. People who own their own businesses are their own bosses. They are independent thinkers. They know they can't compete by imitating the big guys--they have to innovate, so they're less obsessed with earnings than they are with ideas. They are quicker to seize on new technologies and new product ideas. They steal market share from the big companies, spurring them to adopt new approaches. This process promotes competition, which leads to higher product and service quality, more jobs, and greater wealth. It's called capitalism.

But without the proper rules, healthy capitalist markets turn into sluggish oligopolies, and that is what's happening in media today. Large corporations are more profit-focused and risk-averse. They often kill local programming because it's expensive, and they push national programming because it's cheap--even if their decisions run counter to local interests and community values. Their managers are more averse to innovation because they're afraid of being fired for an idea that fails. They prefer to sit on the sidelines, waiting to buy the businesses of the risk-takers who succeed.”

To voice your concern go to www.stopbigmedia.com and sign the petition or write to your congress person or senator.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Dawn is approaching with a bit of fog again washed over the neighborhood. Last night I was listening to National Public Radio and they were discussing the latest Bush administration scandal about the CIA destroying video tapes of suspects being tortured while being interrogated because the tapes posed “a security risk.” Now, I’m fascinated about why these tapes were destroyed, just as I’m fascinated by all the emails this administration has destroyed, and all the witnesses who refuse to appear before Congress. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to realize that these people have a lot to hide. But what bother me was that the NPR story began by describing the tapes depicting “harsh interrogation practices.” Torture is torture and let's call it torture especially since we’re supposed to adhere to the Geneva Convention like other civilized nations and we’re not supposed to use it. End of story, unless you’re a brain-washed Republican or the new Attorney General.

I don’t know about you but I’m an so weary of the right wing spinmeisters changing our language for the sake of political persuasion. When they add more troops in Iraq to replace our allies who have wisely bailed out, it’s called a “surge” not a buildup. Then there is this infernal “War on Terror.” Now, I know a lot of people besides me have realized that you cannot declare war on tactics used by fanatics, but still this term persists. Just as everyone talks about the Iraq War, when in reality it’s an occupation and we’re the occupying army along with mercenaries and a bunch of hand-picked corporations making billions in profits.

Now the right wing started subtly and not so subtly taking over our language a long time ago. Before Bush was billing himself with the help of Karl Rove as a “compassionate conservative” (boy, doesn’t that one make you choke these days?) there was Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America and the Reagan Revolution which used rhetoric that hid its inept and corrupt policies. And the real revolution of his administration was radical corporate deregulation and tax cuts for the rich, and let’s not forget his “trickle down” theory which meant that when the rich got richer we all did. Right. As he espoused “limited government” and borrowed more money than all the previous presidents before him combined and left the nation swimming in debt. As his administration and their “morning in America” in the name of “protecting democracy” meanwhile backed fascist governments and groups and were responsible for countless deaths from El Salvador to Guatemala to Chile and the list goes on. And let’s not forget how his boys created a private spy network and kickbacks from secret arms deals with Iran to keep the Nicaraguan insurgency alive…..

Which brings me to Barry Goldwater (who I suspect is spinning in his grave over what has happened to the G.O.P.) who began the current conservative movement with his anti-government, anti-communism philosophy and was also a politician of ideas and contradictions and a conscience. Goldwater was famous for his sharp tongue and shoot-from-the-hip analysis. While I certainly didn’t agree with everything he stood for, looking back on his manner of speech it seems refreshingly straightforward. Remember that when Nixon’s impeachment was about to go through in Congress they sent Goldwater to tell Nixon that the Republicans wouldn’t back him and the next day Nixon resigned. He was furious with Nixon about the Watergate scandal and said of Nixon he has shown "a tendency to dibble and dabble and argue on very nebulous grounds like executive privilege and confidentiality when all the American people wanted to know was the truth."

He also said in a 1994 Los Angeles Times interview: "A lot of so-called conservatives today don't know what the word means. They think I've turned liberal because I believe a woman has a right to an abortion. That's a decision that's up to the pregnant woman, not up to the pope or some do-gooders or the religious right. It's not a conservative issue at all."

It seems to me that these days our political discourse dibbles and dabbles and obscures the truth. My advice is that we refuse to use these buzz words and easy slogans, but form our own political content. And call a liar and crook a liar and a crook. And “harsh” interrogation torture.

I worry a lot about how our Constitution is being shredded by this administration and that the Congress isn’t moving fast enough to stop them. So sometimes I read it and the Declaration of Independence because the language is so precise and brimming with promise. The people that created these documents argued over the language, wanting it to be clear and true and so that it might last for generations. Many of these patriots suffered and died for adding their signatures to these remarkable documents that still ring with truth and hope: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekov

I woke in the middle of the night listening. For the first time in days I couldn’t hear the wind or rain pounding against the roof and windows. But although the wind has died down the rain is continuing. I know that much of the country has been hit with a wide-spread snowstorm; here it’s been a pineapple express. So while the temperatures have warmed, hurricane-force winds which reached up to 129 miles an hour and heavy rain have battered our region, killing at least four people and knocking out power as the storms blocked roads with trees, power lines, high water and mud slides. I-5 is closed between Portland and Seattle, some coastal towns are still without power, and the country’s largest Sitka spruce, over 700 years old was snapped in half by the winds. Seattle received more than 5 inches in a single day.

Yesterday I went out to visit Johnson Creek which is about a block away and discovered that it jumped its bank. In fact it’s about 15 feet above the bank with most of the surrounding park under water. Neighbors milled around snapping photos on cell phones while others filled sandbags and dogs acted nervous, sniffing around the altered landscape. The creek, which flows 26 miles through Clackamas and Multnomah counties before entering the Willamette River is prone to flooding. As I watched, the neighborhood’s great blue heron came in for a landing, but then with the creek seemingly unrecognizable, he flew back upstream.

On Saturday I spent the day amid snow and slush teaching in Olympia. The college is surrounded by huge evergreens, mostly cedars and the storm began around noon and snow nestled in the branches like a winter postcard setting. Traveling home by train the snow and sleet slapped against the car the whole trip and by the time I reached home somehow the weather had seemed to infiltrate me and I arrived home feeling unsettled but grateful.

I was teaching my “show, don’t tell” workshop which is a day spent advising writers how to make their writing more alive. Show, don’t tell is probably the first technique of writing. Simply put, show, don’t tell advises writers to show via action or dramatizing, including dialogue and the five senses whenever possible and to tell, or explain or report only when necessary. Yet, while it’s a helpful guideline, all writing requires both showing and telling. Too much telling and the work is distant, static, lifeless on the page. Too much showing and the story is relentless, a full-tilt boogie. And contrary to conventional beliefs, it can also be flat and dull.

If you show me it’s a story, if you tell me, it’s a report. However, let’s clear up this simple fact: telling is not intrinsically bad, nor can be considered a necessary evil, because all stories require background information and data in order to be truly developed. Effective writing is a blend of techniques with telling used to develop characters, explain and reveal. When you tell the reader information, you’re guiding him into the story, grounding the action with much needed evidence. Too much showing in a story and the reader is abandoned, adrift, forced to read meaning into every gesture.

It seems to me that chief difference between the two approaches is that with showing the reader is involved in the story as a sensory participant and draws his own conclusions; with telling the writer is instructing the reader how to think. But you know, since Saturday I’ve been thinking that most writing techniques are accomplished word by word. In this workshop we spend time focusing on using vivid verbs and limiting modifiers because modifiers tell and verbs show. We also spent a lot of time on how using precise and sensory details brings the reader into a story and evokes emotions.

Here are some suggestions for SDT, word by word:

  • Limit your use of adjectives and adverbs, instead preferring specific nouns and vivid verbs.
  • Use showing for the focal moments in the story.
  • Avoid abstract language, judgment or announcement words like beautiful, frightening, wonderful, hatred, envy, ugly, evil, frustration. Nail down these terms with concrete proofs and interpretations told through a character’s or narrator’s point of view.
  • Describe a person’s emotions; don’t state them.
  • Don’t insert long descriptions in the middle of an action scene.
  • Use telling when you need to deliver a lot of information in few words.
  • Use telling for transitions and quick summaries.
  • Dialogue shows and is especially helpful to reveal emotions and a person’s particular slant on the world. Dialogue can also reveal by what is NOT said.
  • To show, use active verbs. An example is Telling: Alice looked at the men in anger. Showing: Alice’s eyes smoldered. Telling: The house was rundown and shabby. Showing: Weeds crowded the foundation and the paint curled around the sagging windows.
  • Telling, when poorly applied, makes announcements: Alice was furious, Sam was sad, Bob was feeling lonely. This is telling at its most mundane; avoid this pitfall by stapling a solid example or evidence onto this sort of statement. Telling when used by a sloppy writer can be general and stereotypical.

We know that good writing simmers, brims, sweats on the page, slips into reader’s brain with a vivid vibrancy. Most compelling writing is a blend of action, physical description and information combined to create thrust and involve readers emotionally. Experiment with your own devices to breathe life into your words remembering that there is room for suggestive and indirect approaches.

And just a reminder from American Friends Service Committee: The $720 million a day price tag for the Iraq occupation could be used instead to fund healthcare for 423,529 children or equip 1,277,335 homes with renewable electricity for an entire year.