Sparked by Words

Archive for September, 2013

Scholarly Dreams

yoga My very first guest blog post features the talented Chavva Olander, a dear and brilliant friend. Her article made me laugh – the first time I read it, the second time, and the third. Bet you can’t read this without laughing – and thinking about how much the world has changed since you were in kindergarten. She begins with a note, too funny and too true to leave out.

Chavva’s introduction:

I have to preface this by saying that I am tremendously out of practice as I haven’t been writing at all, practically, until just a couple weeks ago.  It is not like riding a bike.  Or, maybe it is, and I’ve simply forgotten that, too.  In any case, I feel leagues away from where I once was, which is disheartening, since, as my mother regularly feels compelled to remind me, I’m not actually getting younger despite the fact that I refuse to grow up.  She also has been known to slip wrinkle cream into my purse when I’m not looking.  I think there’s a diagnosis out there to explain this behavior, but I’ve just been too busy lately to consult my DSM IV (you can’t effectively people-watch without one).  This is the first of a series of little essays I’m writing to try to become David Sedaris (one of my literary idols).  I’m not as funny or as clever, or anywhere near as talented, but I’m trying, and someone once told me that counted for something, although I knew even at the time that they were probably lying. (more…)

G is for Gimme Something Good

I’m bartering commas, capital letters, and quotation marks – what’ll you give me in return? A better written story will do. Because if your name isn’t e.e. cummings, whose poetry famously forgot capital letters (and apparently, that ain’t even necessarily so,) or Michael Ondaatje, who eschews quotation marks round and about dialogue, or Alice Walker, whose The Color Purple revealed Celie’s emerging brilliance via her increasing grasp of written language, you’d better conform to common literary form. The road most traveled to publication is best paved with smooth asphalt and best lit with ordinary street lamps. In writing, we call these things everyday spelling, grammar, punctuation, and writing mechanics. I’m just saying: if a reader can’t find his way among the obstacle course of your creative constructions, maybe he’ll read something else. You know what they say then: “Oh darn.” (more…)

Three Cardinal Directions

If you were a Boy or Girl Scout, you know the four cardinal directions – south, west, north, and east. It’s basic compass and map work and even though our compass interpreter might nowadays be Siri or some other computer voice coming at us, I’m still sympathetic to the motive for moving in the right direction. A navigational compass will direct you to your destination if you know how to read the spinning arrow and relate it to the curvy lines on a topographic map. This story isn’t about the compass that failed, but the people who failed, and those who didn’t. (more…)

F is for Finding My Voice

Don’t know about you, but I’ve had a voice ever since I was born. A piercing sound box that I used to alert the armed forces that I was hungry or of other uncomfortable physical situations. I continued with that wail until I learned to speak, first with a decidedly New Jersey slur, not too dissimilar from the Southern drawl I later adopted the year I lived in Alabama and attended kindergarten. Even later I picked up a bit of pidgin from Hawaii when my family lived there for a few years. Finally I settled on California’s western twang after moving here on my 13th birthday and making it my permanent home except for three crazy years early in our marriage when we lived in Detroit. (Don’t ask, just don’t.)

My writer’s voice came in about as slowly and with as many distractions along the way as my baby and childish ones. I learned to speak and anticipate because I learned first to listen and observe. I even fidgeted when writing my first book with present tense versus simple past tense. Though this is not exactly the same thing, it does affect the writers’ voice. Fortunately I recognized that present tense is an awkward attempt to sound edgy and urgent while simple past covers content and character more comfortably. My developed writer’s voice sounds like my alter ego, notable for the realization that this is a desirable state and I should be so lucky to maintain my voice throughout my novels. Every writer reveals her voice in her work though the subject may be unique, book to book. It’s the way she observes landscape, the style of her sentence structure, and the grasp of dialogue.

Not a very specific strategy for defining the single most personality driven quality of our writing, is it? Confused? Shouldn’t be, because voice is as recognizable and distinct as other identifiable traits. After all, I’d know Beyoncé’s music from Taylor Swift’s even if they’re belting songs I’ve never heard. I can tell the difference between Beethoven’s rousing classical symphonies and the contemporary vernacular of Aaron Copeland’s ballets. I can distinguish impromptu jazz from free style rap no matter which I prefer (not telling you here.) I can look at a landscape painting of bold, thick oil strokes and declare it’s a Van Gogh, or at a delicate watercolor painting of an animal and know it’s by Albrecht Durer. Writing voice is not much different, though the characteristics of voice description are a bit more nebulous.  Maybe a bit harder to pinpoint, to fit into rigid templates, but still unique.

More important than being fluent at describing writing voice to comprehend the distinctions is being honest about presenting my voice in my writing. I learned early that I had to drop the pretense of mimicking Shakespeare, whose luminous and melodic voice I can’t assume on the best of my days, or Barbara Kingsolver, whose deft mind creates stories that stick with me years after I’ve read her books but whose masterful style eludes me. Still, I have begun to write with my own voice, a skill confirmed by readers in my critique group. It comes most vividly when I allow it to come most naturally, letting the material dictate my story and the way I present characters and plot.

Aspects of my writing style come to me from my crazy quilt background, not just the way I heard and adopted dialect when I was a kid, but the way I noted how people lived in different parts of the country, how they interacted with each other and conducted their lives. It came from the sights that lured me to explore the outdoors, from the smells that tempted me in the kitchen, from the various cultures across the country, and from my joy or distress over those experiences. I discovered that reading my WIP aloud gave me a sense of what was powerful: short sentences, driving hammer-like against steel nails. Or what was poetic: comparisons between unlikely subjects, forcing them to dance duets. Or what was insightful: drawing conclusions from mystery.

My voice is subjective, wet clay of my thoughts molded by my imagination. I hope my readers will love my voice. I’ll settle for them liking it, but I have to remain true to who I am or my story falls apart like broken pottery. My rhythm and syntax must engage my reader because let’s face it: as original as I try to be, as all writers try to be, there are only so many themes and plots out there. It’s the writer’s voice that seduces the reader. I mewled as an infant. Now I howl, I whisper, I recite, I shout, and I chant. Come read my work, come listen to the sound of my stories. Hear my voice.

Only Fall

Only fall to grasp the true measure of folly

Doom of clouded schemes

Sun leaps feet first into the sea at dusk

Never seeing a boy who drowned

Had only the boy leapt to a raft in water

Sun would have cradled him instead of sea

He would never have flown with waxen wings to

Seize what never was his to touch in flight (more…)

E is for Enter the Plot

I instructed a first grade art class to draw the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, hoping to encourage lots of action pictures from the kids. Nearly every child began to draw portraits of the bears and their uninvited house guest. Getting the kids to understand that they were missing the action of the story took a lot of explanation and examples. Their picture books  missed the plot.

It just isn’t a story if nothing happens. As writers, we face the same dilemma. Describe everything you like. Hell, describe everything you hate. Use all those big words from the SAT list and all the interesting ones from A.Word.A.Day (thank you, Anu Garg – you are brilliant) to show all manner of items in your imaginary world. Be poetic, outlandish, edgy, surprising, harsh, dramatic, even melodramatic in those descriptions. But they aren’t enough. Something has to happen if it’s going to be a story. You have to paint more than portraits of your bears.

Story is plot, an ongoing sequence of events, whether a thrilling adventure or a series of subtle twists that impacts the main character. You have to make something happen and it’s better if lots of stuff happens. Sounds like writing practice for six-year-olds yet I’ve read any number of adult-writen WIP that tell excellent descriptions of all kinds of things but still have no plot. Nothing is happening. No one wants anything. Threats are absent. No one needs rescue. Nobody takes risks, goes anyplace dangerous, does something stupid, sets off a chain of perilous events, internally transforms because of life incidents. The bad guy makes a visual appearance, another description, but doesn’t interact with the main character. There are no stakes that anyone must overcome in order to stay alive.

Someone asks, “What’s your plot?” I reply, “It’s the story of Slick’s life.” I produce Slick’s diary, my own in slim disguise, because I’m certain all the things I’ve lived through are interesting enough to write a story about. I’m talking an adult here, a grownup proficient with a computer, journaling every morning, writing on a daily basis but not creating story. “First Slick (the disguised me) went here, and then he went there.” However busy I may be getting here and there, my daily activities do not comprise a story. There is no plot to my life as I function day to day. No plot, no story, no matter how invested I may be in my life.

Think of it this way: Slick, our protagonist, is an endearing character who wants to win the State Sidewalk Sliding Championship but is frankly too darned lazy to attain any skill. He dreams winning but does nothing to get to the podium. Sounds just like me. I have big dreams and the only thing getting in the way of achieving them is that I don’t go after my dreams in any active way. The story of my life, of Slick’s life, is not a story that anyone wants to read. It’s life minus plot.

To amp up our story we now we have Slick practicing sidewalk sliding on a regular basis, improving his skill at each workout.  What seemed like a long shot now appears to be a possible winning outcome. Along comes Knuckle, our antagonist, also yearning to win the sidewalk sliding trophy, and Knuckle is of course, bigger and faster. Aha, a competition. Still not a plot, but getting closer.

Knuckle concocts a method of breaking the sidewalk sections, creating an unslidable surface. Slick crashes and ends up with one short leg. Finally, enter the plot. We leave the boring realm of ordinary diary life and approach that of a fantastical, adventurous story, one that everyone in the world wants to read about. Slick, our potential hero, the nice kid with one short leg, wants to win the State Sidewalk Sliding Championship as does Knuckle, a born athlete but also a cheater.

Slick misses the bus to the competition because Knuckle got on first, (remember, Slick has a short leg) took the last seat, and locked the door. As Slick rushes to hitch a ride on the bus bumper, Knuckle tosses jelly beans out the window, making Slick fall on his personal bumper. Slick could eat the jelly beans and solve that problem but he’s deathly allergic to them. One bite of one bean and his legs, his all important and clever but uneven legs, his essential element of competition, will swell to watermelon size and become too mushy for him to stand, even lopsidedly, forget sliding. At every turn, Slick is halted in his objective as Knuckle’s subterfuges become increasingly more dangerous and difficult to overcome.

The story is no longer about me, because I don’t have Slick’s problems or nemesis, but it has become a story because there is now a plot. Problems must be resolved in a limited amount of time (the competition is tomorrow) with lots of crises thrown in front of Slick, making it unlikely he’ll succeed in bringing home the trophy. Until he finally does, against all odds and by his own clever prowess. Slick outwits Knuckle, competes fairly and wins, still with one leg too short, finally dumping Knuckle into the trash bin where old sidewalk sections go when they are too crumpled to slide on. The story no longer has any resemblance to my boring diary but no one wanted to read that anyway.

Plot, progressive actions, is only one part of story but it’s a critical part. It may evolve from a page of your diary, a chapter of history, or your crazy dreams, but it has to be an ongoing construction that forces your main character into confronting risk and taking action. Now let’s draw Papa Bear as he enters his house and slips on the rungs of his broken chair, strewn about the floor. Aha, the plot thickens.

Right Back after This Short Break

The first time I wrote the words “The End” after completing my first book was a moment of exultation. I’d done it, finished a task begun nearly four years earlier, a feat I’d been told that many aspiring writers never achieve. While so many people open a document intending to write the Great American Novel, many write a few chapters and become discouraged by the hard work and consistent effort necessary to get the job done. But I’d fulfilled my dream. Thousands of hours writing and researching, and I had a finished book to show for it, “The End” written in bold face at the bottom of the last page. (more…)

D is for Dares with Dreams

I’m writing this post on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech as it was presented at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. It’s fitting that this entry be more somber than others in the Alphabet of a New Blog series.

Many of you reading this only know Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement from history books, documentaries, news articles, TV broadcasts, and the like. I knew Dr. King from my place in the generation to whom he addressed his concerns. Too young to march with him, I later spent my college years singing “We Will Overcome” and rallying against continuing inequalities, the heady sense of social justice and righteousness fresh from the earlier Civil Rights marches. I worked on behalf of lowering the voting age to 18, figuring that a man deemed old enough to fight and perhaps die for our country should be considered old enough to vote. I’m still proud of my contribution to that success. It cost me a semester of perfect university grades to help get that job done, and I don’t regret my choice. (more…)

The Kid in the Second Row

There’s always a kid in the second row who reacts to the ordinary events in class by laughing hysterically. She engages the other kids in companion giggles and breaks up the rhythm the teacher has so carefully plotted. A lesson on carrying numbers from one column to the next, and the kid in the second row is laughing because the lines of numbers on the board wobble like a falling tower. A lesson on the construction of a sentence into parts that move, parts that enhance, and parts that command, and the kid in the second row is laughing because the teacher finds more life in those parts than in the kids listening to her. (more…)