"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.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

"By the very nature of creative insights, it is difficult to study it scientifically. Science is about repeatability. Creativity is not about repeatability. When you come across an idea, something irreversible occurs in your brain. Your brain is in a different state than before. You cannot request the brain to go back to the 'before'' state and measure the creative process over again." ~ Ken Mogi

Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Things don't fall apart. Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept."-Lucille Clifton
Writing Prompt
Using the first line of a published poem, keep writing. However, it’s not necessary to  continue writing a poem. You can pen a story, essay or scene.  Try these first lines written by Richard Hugo. Or try the first lines of your favorite poems.
This is the final resting place of engines
One tug pounds to haul an afternoon
We had to get him off, the dirty elf-
In gold life here a small guard
A field of wind gave license for defeat
This summer, most friends out of town
You remember the name was Jensen. She seemed old
Dear Bobbi: God it’s cold. Unpredicted, of course, by forecast
He is twice blessed, the old one buried here
Town or poem. I don’t care how it looks. Old woman
Believe in this couple this day who come
Now I’m dead, load what’s left on the wagon
You might come here Sunday on a whim
Lucille Clifton
Last night I was out with friends for a while and came home to channel surf between Bill Moyers Journal featuring Ted Olson and David Bois talking about the legal issues behind same-sex marriage and the Olympics. The speed skaters fascinate me--and I'm surprised more of them don't topple over as they skim around corners.  At the end of Moyer's show he talked about the death of poet Lucille Clifton.

Moyers: "The long arc of morality that bends toward justice leads not only through the courthouse and the statehouse but out on the streets and in the pages of poetry and prose. Luckily for the rest of us, there are writers who in words both beautiful and bold can express rage at injustice. But they don't stop there, they help us experience sorrow and joy through an intimate knowledge of our tempestuous human nature. We lost one of those gifted people the other day- one of our most popular poets, my friend, Lucille Clifton."

She learned to love poetry from her mother who wrote poetry yet never finished grade school and wrote poems for twenty years before any were published. She was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer and won the National Book Award for Blessing the Boat: New and Selected Poems, and then in 2007, became the first African American woman to receive the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize - one of American poetry's most prestigious poetry honors.

Clifton said: " I was not trained as a poet. I've never taken poetry lessons. I've never had workshops. Nobody taught me anything, really much. But I think that were beginning to remember that the first poets didn't come out of a classroom, that poetry began when somebody walked off of a savanna or out of a cave and looked up at the sky with wonder and said, "Ahhh." That was the first poem."

Friday, February 26, 2010

Update on Summer With Words
Still raining here....sounds as familiar as my breathing. I've just finalized the schedule and instructor line up for Summer in Words. In case you're new to this blog it's a conference for writers at Manzanita, Oregon which is a charming village on the Oregon coast. About a 2 hour drive from Portland. Dates are June 25-27 and space is limited. The instructors are: Larry Brooks, Polly Campbell,  Bill Johnson, Marian Pierce, Jennie Shortridge, and me......So we've got seasoned teachers, best-selling authors, editors, nonfiction writers--what can I say?--a stellar line up. And I've figured out the schedule, now we just need to fine tune some of the workshop titles and descriptions. So please stay tuned and if this interests you, plan on registering early.
Meanwhile, keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart
Poets & Writers & Platforms

Drizzling this morning so you can fill in the color scheme. Poets & Writers magazine is now 40 years old and in every issue they feature a classified section. In this section they list contests, anthology opportunities, calls for submissions, and information about writing conferences. It's one of the most respected listings in the writing world. And I was reminded by Christina Durarte who teaches at Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School that it's a great resource for writers.

These days there is a lot of buzz about platform for writers. A platform means that you have a built-audience for your book and it's a huge part of the publishing world these days. In fact, it's a simple truth that publishers and agents are looking for writers who have a platform. If you're sighing with frustration over this, I can understand your annoyance. After all, writing is hard enough and now publishers want you to do the heavy lifting of promotion too? The answer is yes. But a writing platform could make or break your book deal and a platform drives book sales.

You can build your platform my joining organizations, using social networking, blogging, creating a website, and generally affiliating with people and groups. But another method is to enter contests, get short stories, poems, articles, and essays published, write for on-line magazines and websites, join on-line communities, teach classes, speak before groups and organizations. So I want to suggest that you sort of double-team your writing career by becoming a better writer and building your platform at the same time. And a place to begin building a platform is pursuing those opportunities at Poets & Writers Classified.

So instead of fighting it or grousing about it, accept the fact that a platform is an essential ingredient in the publishing biz these days. A helpful resource for building your platform is Christina Katz's book Get Noticed Before the Book Deal.Use Your Personal Strengths to Grow an Author Platform. 

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Blue seems to be chasing out the clouds this morning. One thing I love about writing books and this blog is connecting with readers around the country and world. Sitting alone in a room with a computer, although I have a window in front of me can feel as isolating as solitary confinement some days.

The other thing I love about writing books is the chance to give them away, especially to young writers. With that in mind, here are photos of Christina Durate's class who have just received 2 of my books recently. She wrote: The name of the school is Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School. It's a second chance school for kids who are ages 17 to 21 to get their diploma. This semester I have a student teacher in that class, she taught her first class yesterday. She also loves to write and she had them write a poem about the sights and senses they come from, and they did great. As for me, I teach them a lot of vocabulary including Greek and Latin roots which they love (believe it or not) because they begin to understand how to decipher words and see language in a greater and wider context. Also, I believe vocabulary is like the multiplication tables, without it you can't do higher level work. I notice that when students learn new words they feel like they own them and they enjoy using them and showing them off, it's a little acquisition or as I tell them "little keys."
 Doesn't she sound like a great teacher and just what these kids need? And you know what? I'm thinking as a blog, why don't we consider sponsoring/mentoring  these kids? Any ideas?



Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Laura Miller Weighs In
Another soft day down here in the valley, with off and on rain and clouds moving around like bullies in the heavens. It was snowing up in the Cascades to the relief of skiers, snow boarders, and resort owners, but down here trees are turning the most delicate shades of pink and I'm reminded of chiffon ball gowns of old.

Laura Miller is the book critic at salon. com and has weighed in on The Guardian piece about 10 rules for writing. Her piece A Reader's Advice to Writers is short, but smart. In fact, it's the sort of advice I give writers all the time, so maybe I like it because she agrees with me. Her first point is one I mention all the time to my students.  1. Make your main character want something. Writers tend to be introverted observers who equate reflection with insight and depth, yet a fictional character who does nothing but witness and contemplate is at best annoying and at worst, dull. There's a reason why Nick Carraway is the narrator of "The Great Gatsby" while Gatsby himself is the protagonist. Desire is the engine that drives both life and narrative.

What does your character want? And who or what is going to stand in his/her way?
Awake in the night 
Somehow since I started working on my new book I've developed this habit of working in the middle of the night. Now, I don't do it every night or I'd walk around during the daylight hours with a constant sleep hangover. But something has switched inside of me, and so here I am again. A few years ago I interviewed Diana Gabaldon for The Writer magazine and she explained her nocturnal writing pattern. She developed it out of necessity when she first started writing because she was working more than full time AND had three kids. But her kids are grown now and she continues her nocturnal schedule. 
One thing Diana told me that I've always remembered is that she writes a bit each morning, then goes about her day of errands, research, gardening, walking, hanging out with her husband. But those morning bits are composting all day, ready for her nighttime sessions. 
 Last night I met a visual artist for cocktails and asked him about his work. He told me that his daily life and painting are completely separate. I explained that as a writer, everything I do is part of writing, and everything I see seems to funnel into it. And that as a writer, I feel like I'm living twice. I live in the now, but often as I'm gazing at the sky, or moving through the kingdom of spring, part of me is writing the moment too. 
 On Monday night I was out walking along the Springwater Trail, timing my walk so that if clouds were moving in from the west as the sun was setting, I'd be facing them on my way home. And as I was walking west, sort of drinking in the sky, it felt like I was walking into a dream, or into another space that was not quite earth It seems to me that all writers need to keep looking around, living with an acute awareness of all the beauty and chaos around us, asking ourselves, what does this remind me of?     
Stage and Studio Interview 
Meanwhile, here's the interview from yesterday.
Many thanks to Dmae Roberts, Stage and Studio, KBOO

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ten Rules Continued.....
I hope you have a chance to read the rules for writing fiction at The Guardian that I posted in the earlier link. I'm going to post my own ten rules later today or tomorrow and welcome you to submit yours to me at jessicapage at spiritone dot com.

Meanwhile, the KBOO interview was fun although I slipped and said 'lame ass' on the air. They're trying to keep their content clean because cranks who want them off the air complain to the FCC. Anyway, writing in the rain here in Portland.
10 Rules for Writing Fiction
Sky is pale grey and rain seems inevitable--but we've had a good ride with this dewy spring weather. I'm posting the link to The Guardians article that appeared on February 20th, Ten Rules of Writing Fiction. In this article, authors weigh in responding to Elmore Leonard's rules.

For years I've been dividing writers between those that overwrite and those that underwrite. But I know that there are also sharp divisions between those that love these sort of rules (let's call them guidelines) and those who hate these sort of rules. But no matter your bent, it seems to me that you can break the rules once you know them, but operating out of ignorance is just silly.

Here's an excerpt:
Elmore Leonard: Using adverbs is a mortal sin
1 Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."

3 Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary....

Well, so far, I disagree with rule #2, because some of my favorite books begin with a prologue and I wrote a chapter on how to manage them in Between the Lines.  The advice I most love comes from P.D James: "1 Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more ­effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.
2 Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious."


Monday, February 22, 2010

KBOO Interview

Powder blue skies this morning. Years ago one of my students called these early springs with spates of sunshine 'sucker spring' because rains and clouds are sure to follow, but I'll settle for being suckered in. I just wanted you to know that I'm going to be interviewed by Peabody award winner Dmae Roberts on KBOO radio (Portland 90.7 FM) for their Stage and Studio program. It begins at 11 p.m. Pacific time, on Tuesday, February 23. I'll be talking about the writing life, craft,  and writing through adversity and you can also send in questions. You can also find the interview on line afterward.

Meanwhile, keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.

Lives of Writers
Don't you love to read about the lives of writers? I know I do. As much as I know that they spend hours alone in a room wrestling with words, I'm convinced they all lead vastly more interesting lives than I do. Generally I'm right about this as was confirmed by a piece from yesterday's Sunday Times  about Don DeLillo: A Writer Like No Other

Here is an excerpt: "DeLillo now lives in the suburb of Bronxville, where he writes on an Olympia typewriter, shuns email, watches old movies with his wife and gives as few interviews as is polite. He is not, as newspapers have often suggested, a recluse (he is far too sociable, for one thing), but he prefers not to think of himself in the third person. Indeed, DeLillo used to carry a business card that read “I don’t want to talk about it” — again funny, again instructive. “Did Saul Bellow walk around thinking, ‘I’m Saul Bellow’?” he asks, the Bronx still in his vowels. “I don’t think so. No, he went around getting in trouble with his wife, having arguments with his colleagues and so on. You can’t separate yourself. You just are who you are beyond whatever your line of work is.”

And here he is talking about the novel: "It is the form that allows a writer the greatest opportunity to explore human experience,” he says. “For that reason, reading a novel is potentially a significant act. Because there are so many varieties of human experience, so many kinds of interaction between humans, and so many ways of creating patterns in the novel that can’t be created in a short story, a play, a poem or a movie. The novel, simply, offers more opportunities for a reader to understand the world better, including the world of artistic creation. That sounds pretty grand, but I think it’s true.”
"You must want to enough. Enough to take all the rejections, enough to pay the price of disappointment and discouragement while you are learning. Like any other artist you must learn your craft—then you can add all the genius you like." Phyllis A. Whitney

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Gorgeous blue skies this morning. I was listening to NPR while checking my emails and listened to an interview with Amy Greene  about her new book Bloodroot. She grew up in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains and seems to have a special focus on place. At the end of the interview she was asked what she learned and she said, "take what's good from the life you lived and leave the rest behind."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

This photo of my latest book, Thanks, But This Isn't For Us  was sent to me by writer Ken Matthews......
And this one: 

Makes all that hard work writing it worthwhile! 

Friday, February 19, 2010

Nancy Farmer
Nancy Farmer writes illuminating, powerful, and gripping YA fiction. She wins prizes, she has many devoted readers,  she takes risks with her stories and characters and themes. In fact, she's freaking amazing. I zipped over to her website this morning because I wanted to introduce her to one of my students. And I got sucked into reading her bio. You need to read this. She was destined to be a writer.
Pale blue skies again today and yesterday was our warmest day of the year. I went out walking yesterday afternoon in the sun then came home so restless from the influx of rays into my brain that I practically needed to tie myself into a chair. Then on the way to meet with my critique group, I was just sort of gaping at everything and arrived at my destination dazed and practically drunk on sun. Then learned that my claims of yesterday were wrong  since plum trees, not cherry trees are now blooming. So I'm not sure what will happen today when I step outdoors....but I'm willing to risk it.

Why I Write

"To satisfy a basic, fundamental need. I think all people have this need. It's why children like to draw pictures of houses, animals, and Mom; it's an affirmation of their presence in the corporeal world.
You come into life, and life gives you everything your senses can bear: broad currents of animal feeling running alongside the particularity of thought. Sunlight, stars, colors, smells, sounds. Tender things, sweet, temperate things, harsh, freezing, hot, salty things. All the different expressions on people's faces and in their voices.
For years, everything just pours into you, and all you can do is gurgle or scream until finally one day you can sit up and hold your crayon and draw your picture and thus shout back, Yes! I hear! I see! I feel! This is what it's like! It's dynamic creation and pure, delighted receptivity happening on the same field, a great call and response." ~ Mary Gaitskill

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sweet-looking blue skies this morning. You know, here on the West coast we cannot deny that spring has already arrived. I was watching the Olympics a few days ago and the network was splicing a camera shot of snow fluttering down at Whistler with another camera angle of cherry trees blooming in Vancouver. And I was thinking how odd it was that the cherry trees had started so early. But we've had a mild winter and the crocuses are popping up everywhere, the dafodils are opening, the willows down by the creek are turning green, and then yesterday I saw that some of the cherry trees were blooming here too. They used to bloom in April. In the past few years they've been blooming in March. So you tell me what this means about climate trends.

Meanwhile, I'm happy to report that I'm working with two different critique groups of fiction writers and it's been fun. Not draining, or exasperating, or get-this-delusional-or-crazy-person-out-of-my-sight-agony, but fun. They're talented, hard working, and realistic. They lob out great insights about each others' stories and are supportive and kind, yet tough when needed. So I'm in a I love writers mood which is lovely...maybe spring is affecting me and I can end my rein as the Queen of Bad News. In fact, I'm pretty sure I need a new title.....

And I've been thinking about teachers in general lately--how you can uplift and guide and nurture as a teacher. In a bizarre twist, Senator Buttar of Utah has suggested that the state eliminate the 12th grade to deal with their financial crisis. Now, we all know that education systems most everywhere in the country are struggling to teach kids without enough resources. But this is probably the worst solution I've ever heard in years. As if 17 year old kids are ready to go out into the world. Yeesh. As if the subjects taught in high school weren't of great value.

Almost everyone I know who has made something of his or her life had at least one teacher who shone a light, who cared, who understood, who modeled curiosity, compassion, and well, just plain adulthood. So I'm going to keep teaching in many ways in my life--it's what I always wanted to do since I was about eight and I realized how much teachers could bring to a child's life. And I'm going to join the voices that speak out for learning and teachers and helping kids in this country. I've been thinking lately about volunteering at a local school and have been trying to figure out what kind of program I want to be involved in, or how I'd go about it. What if everyone who has a few extra hours in their week (I don't, but think I'm going to do this anyway) would call the closest school and volunteer? What if millions of people did this everywhere?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Don't disregard your life. It is too precious. This moment, right now, is the only life you will ever have. You can't store it up for the ideal time. When you walk, walk with your whole body and mind joining the floor. Place your eyes in the soles of your feet, walking as if the floor were a dear friend. This is intimacy with all things, where the whole world is self, where there is no "outside" or other."
- Pat Phelan

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

So many blogs, so little time
I often teach students or work with clients who write historical fiction. And I'm always trying to point out when the facts seem to slip, when the technology and language seem inaccurate, wresting me from the story. Currently I'm exchanging emails with a writer who is writing a pre-industrial fantasy (and by the way, it's a good story) and in his latest chapter he's commenting about how his character's pants are slipping. And this was raising my editor's ire a bit, because in my mind, pants are a rather modern invention and the term doesn't belong in a story from another time and place. I'm always looking for the etymology of words to back up my hunches (luckily, I'm right more than I'm wrong) and then I stumbled onto this marvelous and witty blog that you all need to know about: Poddictionary: The podcast of word lovers.A word root every day.  It's gorgeous witty, insightful. Bookmark it right now. You'll thank me.
Clouds are moving in and blue skies are taking over. I was driving home from a chiropractor appointment earlier and realized that I have rarely worn a winter jacket these past months. Perhaps 4 or 5 times. So add that to your proofs about global weather changes....we need to stop calling it global warming because that's confusing too many people, especially those in the East who are worn from shoveling.

Humans have always made sense of the world by telling stories. Stories help us sort and process the events and traumas of living, and help us connect to others. Everyone is a storyteller; everyone reflects on his or her past and filters those experiences into stories. We also use our stories to inspire ourselves, to quell our fears, to keep alive hope. Which leads me to ask you what you really what to write about. What is the story that is pushing into your consciousness, demanding to be written, demanding a place in the world? We all have burning questions, pressing concerns, issues that make us angry, or joys that we long to share. We go through life noticing, worrying, caring, especially because we’re writers. Because a writer is a forager constantly gathering materials from life and gleaning memory, because a writer holds an ear to wind and is constantly noticing, he or she needs a format to transform all that listening and gathering.

Storytelling endures and will continue to do so, no matter how technology changes its form. So if you haven’t found it found the courage, as winter wanes and spring arrives with it's promises and softness, this is the perfect time to begin the story you need to tell. This blog is your nudge to stop stalling, to take the proverbial leap.

Live big, always noticing, eavesdropping as a way of life. Writing is always about something, about the world, about themes, issues, timeless dilemmas, so pay attention to all parts of life.  This keeps your imagination in tune, lively; this noticing helps add sensory details to your work, and sparks new story ideas and themes.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Great Idea!
Nonoedmo National Novel Editing Month is coming in March. For more info, go to their website.  Sometimes doesn't it just seem that the world is teeming with creativity and ideas and solutions?
Selling Books
A lot of writers that I meet (most who haven't been published) complain about the someday possibility that they'll need to be involved in selling their books. Yep, folks, I'm going to be the Demon of Harsh Reality once again and warn you that if you write a book, you'll need to sell it too. So if you're a garret-dwelling type who doesn't want to get his or her hands dirty and meet readers, write blogs, or any of the other nitty-gritty work of promotion, you probably are not going to make it in this publishing environment. That said, here's a helpful and upbeat post by  Marie Mocket on publicizing a book even when the odds seem stacked against you. Read it and find hope!
Author Magazine
Sky is pale cornflower blue this morning and I've just shipped off the rewrite of my book proposal. Phew. If you don't think I know the pain of endless rewrites you'd be so, so wrong.

Anyway, if you're new to reading this blog I want to remind you of a terrific resource for writers on-line, Author Magazine. It's published weekly by the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and features blogs, podcasts, interviews and articles about the writing life. For example this week, there is a piece on Sir Ken Robinson author of The Element, Daniel Pink author of Drive, Jasper Fforde,  and Peter Brown. In fact, it's chock full of writerly advice and wisdom.

It is edited by Bill Kenower who blogs daily and this week wrote: "Writers live in the world, and that world feeds and influences us. The scientific paradigm of thought that has so dominated the history of the world for the last few centuries must be kept in perspective. We are not organic machines busily going about the business of not-dying for as long as possible. If we are to believe the work of Daniel Pink and Sir Ken Robinson, survival, that most mechanistic of all instincts, is but a base platform upon which our true purpose is built.

Oh, and if you search in their archives there is an interview with me....when I was interviewed it was one of those mornings when my brain wasn't quite wrapped around the day yet, so if I mostly made sense I'm grateful.  Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

2 Exciting (really!) contest opportunities

Sky is dingy again this morning and I'm planning a menu to serve to my book group who are coming over later to talk about Olive Kitteridge. If you haven't read this marvelous book, I cannot recommend it enough. Oh, and risotto as the main course, appetizer goat cheese broiled in marinara sauce, ....but I need side dishes and a dessert.

NPR is featuring Round Three of  their 3-minute short story contest again.
Round Three asks writers to use a photograph as a jumping-off point for the story. (Round Two asked writers to begin with the sentence, "The nurse left work at five o'clock; Round One had no restrictions.)
The judge for the Round Three entries will be NPR book critic Alan Cheuse. And if should you miss Round Three?  Round Four will be following soon, with novelist Ann Patchett serving as judge.

 AND--for all those writers who want to pitch a manuscript or take a trip to New York,  Backspace is offering a contest for their upcoming conference in New York, May 27-29. Enter--what do you have to lose? 

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Writing is a job
I'm at my desk as the clock ticks toward midnight. I taught two workshops today and it was one of those days where the process was exhausting. I drove home, picked up carryout food, ate it while reading and then plopped on my couch. I'd been invited to hear music at a nearby pub, and the music sounded like so much fun, but I fell asleep and woke up at 10:30 with no desire to leave home. So I watched Apollo win his silver metal and wondered at the astonishing balance of speed skaters bent and leaning precariously over the  unforgiving ice. (Imagine if we all walked bent over and sideways like that--what an odd sight). In fact, in the race I was watching, just before the finish line the second and third place skaters toppled over, losing their chance at glory.

Now I'm back at work at my desk  for awhile, but wanted to post a link that I'd forgotten to include in January when we were all needing energy for the coming year of writing and productivity. But the year is still young so check out this essay written by the fabulous Ann Patchett in The Washington Post called Resolved: Writing is a job.  In it she writes: Frankly, writing a novel can be uncomfortable at its best and a little torturous otherwise, and if I have failed in the past to always make the time for it, the encroaching world is only partly to blame. The process of writing books is somewhat akin to a very long police interrogation in which the detective leans over the table littered with the butt ends of cigarettes and cold coffee in Styrofoam cups and says for the 87th time, "Now let's go over this again." It is a study in repetition, the ability to read the same page, paragraph, sentence until it could be recited backward and in French in hopes of figuring out which detail is missing, which idea is false. What my days lack in being touched by the muse they make up for in the steady picking of the miner's ax, chipping out a tunnel that may well lead to nowhere.

Friday, February 12, 2010

I'm finally going to start working on updating my website. I've simply not had the time or resources lately, so I'm excited that this is going to happen and I'll be posting information about upcoming workshops on it.
However, until this happens here are a few dates to keep in mind.
Power Writing Workshop, Portland, OR March 6
Deep Fiction Workshop, Manzanita, Oregon, April 10
Summer in Words Writing Conference, June 25-27, Manzanita, Oregon
I'm also going to offer critique groups in the spring in Portland--they will be starting in early April and run for 8 weeks.
Capture Your Inspirations
The drizzle that was the backdrop of the morning has stopped and the sky is turning a lighter shade of pale. A few days ago a friend on Facebook  and I were bantering back and forth and I mentioned that the invention that I always longed for was a time travel machine. He then posed the question of what moment I'd like to travel back in time to visit. I came up with several, including hanging out with Leonardo da Vinci as he was painting, inventing, observing the world. But as I thought back to different times, I realized how fond I was of flushing toilets and running water and how living without these daily luxuries didn't appeal to me. Call me a wimp--you won't be the first.

I woke up early this morning and was wrestling with a rewrite of the first chapter of my book proposal. I had cut the previously written chapter to be introduced later and was sort of flummoxing around, trying different ideas, not feeling happy with the results. At the same time, I've been fretting, sweating and agonizing over an editing project that is going to require that the client do a great deal of rewriting. So I stopped working and  hopped in the shower and started lathering up, my mind not on my work problems, and then I saw the extended metaphor and anecdote I needed for the chapter and I also saw how I needed to handle the editing project. And if I didn't have hot water and a shower, I don't know if these solutions would have occurred to me. Well, come to think of it, they also occur when I'm out walking but the aforementioned drizzle has kept me indoors today.

I've been talking about techniques for capturing your ideas for years with my students. And one that is infallible--you gotta trust me on this---is to notice where you are and what you're doing when your lightning- bolt solutions, ideas, and inspirations arrive. It happens most often when we're puttering, moving, walking, driving, bathing, waking up or falling asleep. So pay attention, write them down. And I don't want to sound like the voice of doom (like when you receive emails that command you to pass along the message or doom will befall you) But....if you don't keep capturing these ideas over time you'll receive fewer of them. Your imagination and intuition withers because you're not responding to them.

Meanwhile, keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.  

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Writing Prompt:
The difference between men and women is that__________________

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Scholarship Available
Folks, I'm offering a scholarship to a needy writer in the Portland, OR area for my upcoming workshop on Saturday. Here are the details:
Content: Fine-tuning Fiction
Time: 1-5
Location: PNCA 1241 N.W. Johnson
Contact me

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

After the workshop

And after last Saturday's Narrative Nonfiction workshop I received an email from a writer, Mary Lou McAuley who is working on a memoir and commented on how the workshop made her feel a new kind of grounding and that she'd like to encourage more writers to pursue writing memoirs: I got up this morning at 4 to do my writing - my best time and finally got to the root of my writing. This is the 'dramatic question' at the heart of my writing and I credit my time in your workshops with finally getting this in front of me. This is what I wrote this morning: I want my readers to know less of me and more of themselves, to haunt their longing and choices, to take them to the brick or wood or trailer houses where they began their way and to whip them forward with me, to fall exhausted with me to stagger up with me until they remember their own song and voice and feel the life and potential of every word.

Writing is a great life folks.
As you know I teach writing workshops, write books for writers and lead critique groups. Most of the time I love all this work, all this contact with writers. Here is a post from Athena who writes the Bliss Quest blog. She's one of my students who has now become a friend. It's way too flattering, but I'm going to link to it anyway. Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.
No one else has access to the world you carry around within yourself; you are its custodian and entrance. No one else can see the world the way you see it. No one else can feel your life the way you feel it. Thus it is impossible to ever compare two people because each stands on such different ground. ~ John O'Donohue

Monday, February 08, 2010

Narrative Nonfiction
Heavy fog obscuring the landscape and the giant firs across the street are shrouded in mystery. For those of you interested in more information or on-line classes in memoir writing you might want to check out the National Association of Memoir Writers.

Back to the topic of narrative nonfiction:

Along with dialogue, readers want to hear the writer musing and struggling to make sense of things. Thus inner monologue, when the reader is allowed inside the writer’s head provides intimacy, authenticity, and emotional impact. It’s particularly powerful when the writer is conflicted, riding an emotional roller coaster, when he’s afraid, trying to make a decision, or reacting to events. Now, while some writers like Tom Wolfe had the audacity to slip into other people heads and report what they were thinking as when he recorded the astronaut’s thoughts in The Right Stuff, most of us will be sticking with our own thoughts. And if for some reason you are reporting on another person’s thoughts, it will be after you have interviewed him or her and learned exactly what they were thinking, not what you imagined he or she was thinking.

Against a background of truth, when possible write essays and memoirs that are based on some aspect of conflict, preferably both inner and outer conflict. In Don’t Let’s go to the Dogs Tonight the conflict stems from a white, English family living amid a revolution in the Congo; in This Boy’s Life, Wolff’s stepfather is a heartless and strange brute; in The Liar’s Club, the author’s family personifies dysfunction and her parent’s lacks, addictions, and just plain craziness, place their daughters at risk.

Fiction is a battlefield, a world of unease. Fiction writers dangle unanswered questions and delay solutions and place likable or at least interesting people in impossible situations. This all adds up to suspense and tension—techniques that need to be emulated in nonfiction. When readers worry they turn pages. Tension and suspense also comes from changes in people’s live, unpredictable plot twists, and gaps in the readers' knowledge. You can also use scene intercuts—moving in and out of various settings, sometimes leaving things dangling as you move along, to create suspense. You also write about topics that cause worry, wonder, and “I can’t believe he said that” reactions in readers.

If you’re writing a memoir that chiefly explores the why of how things happened, consider using a frame structure. A frame begins in the now, then flashes back in time and unfolds the action in chronological order, then returns to the present in the ending.

Again, we use fictional or narrative techniques to make the real events of life more involving, exciting, and powerful. Like fiction, narrative nonfiction shows the forces at work in a person’s life. This means your story is based on a theme or themes that provide the perimeters for the piece. A theme is the connecting thread in nonfiction, a concept or underlying principle that provides resonance, meaning and often an organizing principle. Theme is often understated or whispered, the underlying element that governs the writer's choices of dramatic events to show onstage. Themes are the deepest self emerging on the page, the matters we ponder long after we finish reading the book.

As the poet Mary Oliver says, we each have this one wild and precious life. Write it down.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

More on Narrative Nonfiction
Overcast skies this morning. On Friday we had such a soft, sweet day with blues skies, but grey hues ever since. My daffodils are coming up and plants are budding everywhere. I'm finally over the stomach flu and want to make a few comments on writing narrative nonfiction.

Yesterday I taught a workshop on the subject and have been thinking about a few things ever since. Memoir and nonfiction are still selling well, and many, many people are writing or attempting to write memoirs. If you are one of those people read about 50 books in this genre including the latest entrees. In fact, Melissa Hart's Gringa Girl was one of the new titles in 2009 that make this genre so compelling and readable. But if you want to write about your own life, it requires honesty, restraint, and what I call the So What? factor. I've seen again and again in my work that people believe that suffering equals drama. It doesn't. Or they think they're the only one whose mother didn't love them enough, whose father left the family, or whose brother is a screw up. So what?

Suffering is part of the human condition. And I've seen again and again that people who want to write memoirs are really attached to their suffering. Cannot stop talking about events and trauma that happened thirty, forty, sixty years ago because they want pity and they want to be heard. Too often in life we are not heard, are not noticed and cherished.

And not being heard and cherished is a sad, sad state of affairs, but that is not what writing a memoir is for. It's for telling an artful tale that sheds light on the human condition. Telling and listening to stories makes us feel more alive. Listening or reading stories from people who hang on to their suffering does just the opposite. I know this so well from my teaching experiences.

On to more information about writing nonfiction:
When you write nonfiction you slip into various writing modes, using the exactness of poet, the technique of a novelist, the research methods of a reporter, and the questioning mindset of an essayist. So here are a few things to remember—first this definition by Stephen Minot in Literary Nonfiction: The Fourth Genre: “Literary nonfiction is distinguished by three basic characteristics: It is based on actual events, characters, and places; it is written with a special concern for language; and it tends to be more informal and personal that other types of nonfiction writing.”

The next thing to remember is that narrative nonfiction will always be woven around themes and the techniques of writing fiction. These techniques include: building a narrative arc which often includes a climatic scene, character development, information delivered in scenes with action and dialogue, setting details and introspection or interior dialogue. Thus these true stories will deliver the drama of fiction, the force of fact, and the truth of life.

Keeping this framework in mind, here are methods that add the narrative to nonfiction. No matter if you’re writing an essay or memoir or a behind-the-scenes look at working in an upscale restaurant, the opening moments must always grab the reader’s attention and possibly raise a question that needs answering. Often this means you won’t start the tale at the beginning, but rather at a point where a question can be raised or intrigue created via a provocative scene. Sometimes you’ll start in the middle or in the case of This Boy’s Life, just before Wolff and his mother witness a run-away car heading off a mountain cliff, an ominous foreshadowing of the new life they’re about to enter.

Because you’ll be sometimes writing in scenes or recounting anecdotes, you’ll also be embedding these moments with dialogue. Dialogue causes a sense of immediacy and makes the reader feel like an eavesdropper in the moment. But therein lies the trick since most of us have not traipsed through life hauling around a tape recorder. So you’ll be trying to reconstruct a conversation as best you can, striving hard for accuracy. Now, in fiction, dialogue is conversation’s greatest hits—it leaves out the dull parts of life, it is condensed, and most of all, it’s dramatic.

Thus you’ll likely be working more as a journalist when it comes to quoting dialogue—searching for the essence and meaning of what people say, rather than a word by word recounting. These brief nuggets bring people to life, express conflict and facts. Like all parts of nonfiction, you’ll be presenting the truth as best you know it, so never put words into a person’s mouth that he or she didn’t articulate.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Narrative Nonfiction
Sky like a collage this morning and I'm more bogged down than usual because I've had the stomach flu and am reading a client's manuscript between long bouts of sleeping and feeling sorry for myself. However, I'm feeling a bit better this morning and tomorrow am going teach a workshop on narrative nonfiction. Here's some information on the subject:

Narrative nonfiction is not journalism, poetry or fiction. While sometimes it is a biography, it is never a report, academic or technical writing. Sometimes existing in essay form, sometimes a fully drawn memoir, sometimes in book form that’s difficult to classify such as Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, narrative nonfiction is a hybrid or meld of genres. The story might be deeply personal as in Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and sometimes it analyzes others’ lives as in Truman Capotes In Cold Blood. Capote’s story of the grisly murders of a Kansas family did more to push nonfiction into fictional ground than any book. The story is nonfiction because it’s based on extensive research and interviews and the people written about actually existed, the place is real, the crimes are real, but the way the story unfolds is dramatic and breathes with life.

Narrative nonfiction can tell the small stories of everyday life—the moments and joys and troubles that make up our days, or the larger stories of sweeping events, loss, or mayhem. Subjects for narrative nonfiction range widely from the workplace to politics, sports to the arts, family matters to affairs of the heart.

The approach in narrative nonfiction can be unflinching as in Michael Herr’s Dispatches about his experiences during the Vietnam War or lighthearted as in Sarah Vowell’s Take the Cannoli where in a series of essays, among other topics, she disses the Chelsea and explains that Frank Sinatra was the first punk rocker. Narrative nonfiction might be tightly centered on a theme as in food writer Ruth’s Reichl’s Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples which follows her adventures in the restaurant industry. It can include recipes for apricot pie and pasta with scallops as Reichl does in her books, or a recipe for disaster as Tobias Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s Life chronicles his downhill slide after his mother marries his stepfather.

No matter the subject, human lives under scrutiny are the basis for narrative nonfiction. And here is where the value in narrative nonfiction comes from: these stories help readers discover and validate the meaning of their own experiences. These jolts of recognition can be painful or funny, but there is always the connecting thread of humanity between reader and writer.

When you write nonfiction you slip into various writing modes, using the exactness of poet, the technique of a novelist, the research methods of a reporter, and the questioning mindset of an essayist. So here are a few things to remember—first this definition by Stephen Minot in Literary Nonfiction: The Fourth Genre: “Literary nonfiction is distinguished by three basic characteristics: It is based on actual events, characters, and places; it is written with a special concern for language; and it tends to be more informal and personal that other types of nonfiction writing.”

More to come. Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Calling all writers: There is still time to sign up for two amazing, enlightening, crammed-with helpful techniques and know-how workshops on February 6th and 13th.  
Writing Your Life: Narrative Nonfiction
February 6, Parts 1 &2, 9:30-4:30
Narrative nonfiction reads like fiction but is loyal to facts and truth. But it has something more--a bit of magic, the poetry of beautifully written sentences, and thoughtful explorations of themes. This workshop will explain how a memoir or essay uses novelistic techniques to shape reality on the page. Part 1 will combine lecture, discussion, and a writing exercise. Part 2, which happens in the afternoon, will be focused on voice that leaves a trace of the writer and is harmony with his or her roots. We’ll complete another writing exercise, then participants will give feedback on the writing samples each has brought to demonstrate his or her writing voice.
February 13 Part 3, Writing Your Life: Narrative Nonfiction
Part 3 will take place on the February 13 and will begin with a lecture on truth and themes in nonfiction, as well as how to write compelling beginnings. We’ll then provide feedback on the participants’ opening pages and brainstorm strategies for getting published. Times: 9:30-12:30 Cost: $95.00, February 6 only $75
Fine-tuning Fiction
February 13, 1-5
I wrote my book Between the Lines which is about how to employ the subtler aspects of fiction writing because over the years I’ve noticed that a lot of writers have great plot ideas, but that their stories don’t pass muster because their lack of  understanding and craft of some of smaller aspects of fiction. In this workshop we’ll discuss and illustrate this concept via reading several short stories, and talking about the places in your fiction where you want to become more refined. Topics include: subtlety, flashbacks, theme, subplots, secondary characters, dialogue, and imagery.
Note: participants will read one short story before the session (available on- line).
Cost: $40 Location: PNCA 1241 N.W. Johnson
(Note Fine-tuning Fiction will also an all-day workshop in Manzanita, OR on April 10.)
Generous handouts are included in all the workshops.
To register: send a check to Jessica Morrell, P.O. Box 820141, Portland, OR 97282-1141 Phone 503 287-2150 or write at jessicapage@spiritone.com for more information.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The well-made sentence transcends time and genre. A beautiful sentence is a beautiful sentence, regardless of when it was written or whether it appears in a play or a magazine article. Which is just one of the many reasons why its pleasurable and useful to read outside one's own genre. The writer of lyrical fiction or of the quirkiest, most free-form stream-of-consciousness novel can learn by paying close attention to the sentences of the most logical author of the exactingly reasoned personal essay. Francine Prose
"This is what I believe: That I am I. That my soul is a dark forest. That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest. That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back. That I must have the courage to let them come and go. That I will never let mankind put anything over me, but that I will try always to recognize and submit to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women.
There is my creed."
~ D. H. Lawrence

Monday, February 01, 2010

A Vivid Vision
Bleak-looking skies today and I was just checking my emails and have received a bunch of happy birthdays on Facebook. While we can all scoff at the silly world of Facebook, it’s still so sweet to receive a lot of birthday wishes from around the world.

A while ago I posted a link about focusing on a single thought for the coming year and so this year I’m focusing on prosperity. If you follow this blog you might know I spent a lot of the past year and a half recovering from a car accident, and that there were many moments of suck for a long time. So yesterday I had a brunch and some of my friends came over and we made collages and drank champagne and talked about our focus for the coming year. As women do when gathered and replete with good food and bubbly, we laughed and chatted about our lives, our children, our lovers, our bodies. I felt so much gratitude for friends and for being on the bumpy road to recovery and for the sun that came swooshing in at intervals and an amazing, changing sky that was sometimes purplish and bruised looking in the backdrop of it all.

I have been teaching a workshop called A Vivid Vision for several years now because a vivid vision helps us define our priorities, which in turn helps us to focus on what is most important in our lives. Especially when life knocks us on our butts. As part of this workshop we create collages filled with images and messages for our vision of our lives. I've been making these collages since about 1995 and can attest to their effectiveness.

I don’t have all the problems in my life solved and I’m not a millionaire but I have a deeply meaningful life in which I’m working at something I love, I have a lot of freedom,  I meet many fascinating people, and touch the lives and hearts of thousands. I was raised to be afraid and to not believe in myself. I was taught that my dreams of being a writer were not realistic or important or achievable.  I have learned to take my next steps despite my fears and proved all the people who didn’t believe in me wrong.

I work hard a being courageous. I work hard at inspiring others and being a person who keeps her promises to herself. In my heart I can feel like a screw-up, an outsider, a person who has struggled mightily to gain respect, to live a good life.

But despite this, I succeed most of the time. I believe in generosity and gratitude and accountability. I believe in human potential to create beauty, to connect with others, to solve problems.  But mostly I believe in holding onto a vivid vision of the life I want to lead and am leading because I’ve learned again and again that by holding onto a vivid vision that I bring the future into the now.

So now my place is filled with spring flowers and I’m feeling sort of content and slowed down and ready to take on challenges. Yesterday I kept repeating to my friends “I’m getting another book deal this year.” And had no doubts that this was to be. So I’m going to keep focusing on the possible, keep improving my craft, keep reaching out to people wherever I find them. Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.