Sparked by Words

Archive for March, 2016

All Night Long

The light of day shows best in the middle of the night. At least that’s when I get in my best edits, insights, and revisions. It’s an extension of parenting young children decades ago with no time to write except in the middle of the night when they were finally asleep. When I should have been asleep. It’s the reality of now working full time, which we all know encompasses far more than the requisite eight hours on work tasks, but also includes two to three or four hours of getting oneself ready, getting to work, getting to lunch, and then getting home. Eleven is the new eight hour day, and only if it isn’t actually 12 that’s the new eight hour day, because there’s always some extra work from the real (meaning paid) job thrown in, just in case you have time.

 

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The point of this rant is that my writing is not done even when it’s done, and then it never happens until it begins – in the middle of the night. Stealth – a surreptitious movement while unobserved, to grab loot – becomes the modus operandi for this writer not gifted with attendance at writing conferences, writer’s residencies, or university writing workshops. The luxury of writing does not exist for me at a secluded location with a farfetched title (think Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Middlebury College in the forests of Vermont – I mean, really, Bread Loaf?) but here in the suburban faux eucalyptus woods of Orange County. The trees are real enough but the woods idea is no more genuine than the straight-row planting done by some guy with the wrong idea about what kind of trees would provide great lumber for railroads. Yes, I’m off topic, a not unusual aspect of writing on a catch as catch can basis. Sigh, the way life interrupts my work – tut tut. I steal more time to write.

Insight strikes me much the same way. Harum scarum. I struggle with a chapter if it meanders without advancing the plot, or if a character is tediously authentic. A lizard scurries across the outside deck and I flinch at the distraction. It dashes into our staghorn fern, and I catch a glimpse of the scene I need to write. Scratch the mundane descriptions, allow the hero to dash unexpectedly, cause my reader to flinch but not toss the book. Revision begins with those kinds of epiphanies, equations of unlikely elegance. I suspect because I am willing to be up late at night to the detriment of a good night’s sleep, I also remain open to suggestion at moonlit hours. (It is now 11:14 PM and my alarm plays Bach at 5:00 AM. Ridiculous, aren’t I?) Maybe when I’m sleep deprived, my muse finds me vulnerable and easy to seduce. Um, don’t spread that around.

My other quixotic trait is that I frequently traipse around my house spouting parts of my books, trying out phrases, testing the dialogue, or reading passages to the spider webs in the rafters. The wandering helps me grab hold of a singular word, the reading aloud lets me gauge flow and rhythm. I try out dialects and accents, puzzling how to capture them in my story, tossing them when they don’t work. It’s like fishing in my house only I don’t have to stand in a river wearing high waders, or gut the thing on the end of the line. No raging current, no wriggling fish, maybe a dynamic re-write.

I’m diligent about writing – and rewriting. First drafts are imbued with passion and creativity, but also stunted by lapses and clumsiness. I get those first drafts on paper, and then rework them to make them as perfect as possible. Reread, reconsider, rewrite, and repeat. Sometimes only the computer light keeps the night at bay, sometimes I nod over the keyboard, sometimes I pack up the book into its virtual filing cabinet and set it aside. But one night a few months later I’ll get back to my WIP and tackle it again. Dinner is over, the house is quiet, I keep company with the moon, to its nocturnal rhythms and monthly phases. And one day when the moon is sleeping off its evening watch, when I have finally and truly pronounced my book complete and final, I hope an editor will find my work compelling, and will publish my work.

I won’t care if readers prefer to read my stories by the glow of the moon or the glare of the sun, just as long as they read.

Night time, photospublicdomain.com

 

Brussels, March 2016

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Would that they who work so hard at creating heartbreak learn instead to love.

Brussels, Europe, Our Whole World

 

 

 

 

 

Dove peace image, publicdomainpictures.net

S is for Speak Write

 

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This is a simple post where I encourage you to speak – out loud – all the words of your book in progress. One single sentence and my alphabet blog post for “S” is complete.

Perhaps I will elaborate a bit.

A book is a theatrical experience in the same way that most anything creative is art, considered a right brain occupation. If you are like me, you “talk out loud in your head” every fiction book you read. I talk-act all the parts, even the despicable characters to whom you wouldn’t give the time of day in real life. I speak the dialogue and narrate the action and whisper the internal thoughts. Your book or mine, I talk it through, feeling the tension, sitting at the edge of my seat with my feet propped on a pillow, the book in my lap. Or on my computer.

OK, so you don’t need to be the drama queen I am, you don’t have to make paper hats or Popsicle stick actors to get into a story. Certainly not those you read for pleasure. But if you write, and I assume you do if you read my blog, read your own manuscript aloud.  Not in your head, but loony tune, meshuggeneh, cuckoo as the clock, all out nuts out loud. Be passionate, get angry, weep your heart dry, host a theatrical reading experience – let your voice be heard. So what if the neighbors hear you? It’s your prerogative to give all for your art.

“And why is it necessary?” you ask, crossing one leg over the other, raising an eyebrow, speculating on my sanity or lack thereof. You haven’t read a story out loud since your kids were tiny tots, melted at your hip, begging for “one more.”

Part of the intent of your self-editing process is to catch the errors – the lapses in time frame, characterization blunders, inconsistencies in action, double exposures, words missing in action, and verb tense goofs. But your brain is so smart that it self-corrects better than spell chetck. You noticed how “check” is misspelled? Ordinary silent reading and you often miss stuff that doesn’t belong because your brain edits and shows you what you meant to write, not what you what you actually wrote. Did you catch it – “what you” twice? I’ve written the date of the Apollo 11 moon landing as July 20, 19969. Now you know that isn’t right, but can you figure out which number I accidentally repeated? Hint: should be July 20, 1969. In 19969 they’ll probably be walking on moons all over the Milky Way, stopping in for local cheese snacks. Words of omission are another frequent problem that its ugly head into writing. You know I meant to write “another frequent problem that pops its ugly head,” and without the fizzie of that pop, the meaning falls flat. The final problem area often overlooked concerns changes in verb tense in the middle of chapters or paragraphs. Most work is written in present tense, simple past tense, or perfect past tense. Author preferences reflect what feels natural to the time period and flow of the story, but if it had not been comfortable while we are writing, we had lost audience buy in. This last one needs an editor above my pay grade, but you surely sense the awkwardness of so much verb tense mash up. It’s easy to hear the tense mess when read aloud.

I spotted one of my own real life errors when a character argued with someone who was introduced several chapters later, a similar faux pas to muffing the punch line in a joke. The argument is crucial to the plot but must happen in the correct moment. I’ve also written Benjamin into Henry’s story, so familiar was I with both men that one just made an uninvited  guest appearance in the other’s story.  Henry didn’t complain of course; he hung back in the corner and smirked. I didn’t notice until I read the section intentionally and caught Benjamin involved in the wrong plot. Reading my work out loud helped me catch these errors because my mouth stumbled over the inconsistencies that my brain had previously “fixed.”

Reading engages the reader, even the reader who is also the writer, in present moment awareness of how the language of the story sounds/reads. It’s a slow tool but an outstanding method of catching blooper story experiences. And it’s fun to “act” your own work – you get to be the writer, the director, and the star. Three gilded Roscars right this way, please.

 

Image courtesy Jonathon Colman, Google images, public domain

Sand Sculpture

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If we lie on the beach, reach through froth

press into sand as our bodies crush each into other

the bowls made by our hips gather seeped ocean

edges rise like glass battlements piercing sky

and promises string salty tears across our backs

 

When we finally stand to leave, shake off foam

waves sneak up and, lobbing salty spit, rush back

washing away the sculpted stamp of our bodies

does the first carving of sand made of us tell the truth

or is it the ruined print after the wave recedes to sea

 

I do not know how far to horizon will wane the tide

how long the sand will repose from brine and tears

all I know is to marshal grains, impress our forms

and begin to rebuild the battlements of our union

because it’s what we do, we gather ourselves again

 

 

Beach image, public domain

 

R is for Read, Just Read!

 

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Writers must read. It’s where we get the idea that we can do that too – write books. Don’t copy. Duplicity is the realm of cheaters and frauds. Anyone can plagiarize. Anyone can steal. Only I can write. Maybe you as well. But before you put your pen to the page, read. A lot. All kinds of books.

Start with the works of William Shakespeare, because you can’t go wrong with anything he wrote. Yes, he wrote plays and sonnets, but the man was a master of everything story – character, plot and subplot, historical reference, humor, drama, story arc, metaphor, symbolism. Find a poetic or suggestive title in the bookstore? It may have originated from a line Shakespeare first wrote. Consider these famous books whose titles are sourced from the plays of the Bard. The newer books are all the richer if you also know the inspiration.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, from The Tempest, Miranda’s line, “O, brave new world That has such people in’t.”  A monster might be no more cruel than ordinary souls full of wrath, and the storm within is as threatening as the one on the shore.

John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent, from Richard III, King Richard’s line, “Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” History as warning to rulers that justice will ultimately prevail. Do they ever learn?

Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked this Way Comes, from Macbeth, the Second Witch’s line, “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes.” Curses and the urge for power go a very long way to inciting ruin.

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, also from Macbeth, Macbeth’s line, “It is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury.” Madness reigns and evil lurks when morals are bankrupt.

The Bible is another pinnacle of inspiration. I have no interest in converting you to my religion or even encouraging you to join any religion at all, and I won’t label you as anything but poorly read if you have no idea what might be found in the book. If you want to know something about life in all its complex permutations and messy consequences, if you might be intrigued by true awesomeness, the Bible is an exceptional beginning. Here is a smattering of books whose titles and story provocations are taken from the Bible, a book already so plumbed for ideas that even if you’ve never read it, it will sound familiar when you do. You can read any version to find the references.

Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon, from the eponymous Song of Solomon, sometimes called the Song of Songs, one of the Five Scrolls of the Hebrew Bible, or Tanahk. This is a love poem and a festival of passion worthy of a blush or two.

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!, from 2 Samuel, chapter 19, King David mourns, “O my son , Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died.” It’s hard to find any passage exposing a man more bereft.

John Steinbeck, East of Eden, from Genesis, chapter 4, “and Cain went out from this presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.” Banishment to the farthest corner of the world for the worst of sins.

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, from Ecclesiastes, chapter 1, “The sun also ariseth and the sun goeth down.” Ecclesiastes questions everything considered of value and demands attention to probing one’s own place in the world according to their personal virtue or lack of.

John Grisham, A Time to Kill, also from Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven…a time to kill and a time to heal.” Even murder has its foundation in the Bible, juxtaposed with living.

This portion of Ecclesiastes is so popular that you can find a book penned by someone inspired by nearly every line. It’s a list of daily attributions of life, and just about everything except bug collecting made it. My third book is written in 24 chapters, and originally I assigned each one a title taken from chapter 3. I eventually changed the chapter titles to a simpler format, but it wouldn’t take much of a sleuth to figure out which season’s time fits each section. I may yet be persuaded to return to the words of Ecclesiastes.

Turn to literary classics for other great reads, including books by: Louisa May Alcott, Isabel Allende, Maya Angelou, Jane Austin, Saul Bellow, Emily Bronte, Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, Anton Chekhov, Charles Dickens, E. L. Doctorow, Fyodor Dostoevski, Emily Dickenson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Hardy, Homer, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Harper Lee, Gabriel Macias Marquez, Haruki Murakami, Vladimir Nabokov, Pablo Neruda, Flannery O’Conner, Ann Patchett, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allen Poe, Marcel Proust, J. D. Salinger, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, John Updike, Elie Wiesel, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, and William Butler Yeats.

You’ve noticed that some are poets, some are playwrights, many are novelists, and perhaps some haven’t been dead long enough, or at all, to be considered classic in your mind. It’s a mighty long list and it would be much longer were I to list everyone who should be on the roster.  Many of my favorite novelists are not, though their works are in my library. Haven’t read any or many of these writers? Time to pull up the easy chair and turn off the TV and the computer. Reading is your course of study if you want to be a writer. These works will show you how it’s done, how to improve your work, the goal toward which you should be heading.

Add your own favorite authors, especially those who write in your chosen genres. Give every book a chance but don’t tarry over any tome that makes your brain ache or gets you snoozing. If an author excites or touches you, go for the body of their work, spot the constancy or independence of their voice, their inventiveness, the return of favorite characters and repeated themes. Pay attention as you read, taking note of the craftsmanship, style, and literary elements.

We read to be entertained and elucidated, to learn about the world we aren’t part of, or moments hundreds of years past, or cultures entirely unlike our own, or circumstances too bizarre to fathom. We writers must also read to discover the skill of the masters, to spot the insight that marks great writing, to understand the mechanics of story structure. Submit to the knowledge that some – many – writers are much better than you, and use that as a model for your admiration and enlightenment. Consider how fortunate we are: the biggest whale, the most gorgeous flower, the shiniest gold nugget cannot read. Only people can.

Be wise and engage in intentional reading. But most of all, read.

Books image, blogs.lt.vt.edu, Google, public domain

The Writer as Prophet

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The great religions of the world are revealed through their prophets. The liberation of suffering in Buddhism through Siddhartha and legions of orange garbed monks. The revelation of God’s word in Judaism through Abraham, Moses, and a group of observant nomads. The salvation of the soul in Christianity through Jesus, the disciples, Paul, and later devotees. The submission to Allah in Islam through Muhammed and subsequent faithful clerics. The prophets existed in the realm of spirituality, select individuals following closely in allegiance to holy words. Those loyal people struggled to understand God’s commands, to bring truth to the quarreling common masses and peace to the world, begging us to be attentive. They showed the way forward.

Few of us are prophets, no matter how well we listen and observe the signs. Mostly we wallow down here in the trenches. Our feet stink, our armpits sweat, our eyes blur with exhaustion, and if we seek truth, it is mostly grasped in small flashes of illuminated moments between singing hymns and chopping onions for supper. We scream in frustration at our kids for whom we would lay down our lives and ignore our life partner because today is the same as yesterday. We don’t have the inclination to seriously reflect about where our souls are going, about whom we should love without question, what we should refute as corrupt thoughts. Some have decided there is no God at all, but they still must wash their dirty sheets, still gaze beyond the stars, wondering, what else is out there?

Writers fill the gaps. Pithy comments, mean observations, articulate descriptions, all meant to lead to what we have come to understand as essential rules for life down here on earth. Zora Neale Hurston wrote in Their Eyes Were Watching God, “Love is like the sea. It’s a moving thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from the shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.” We sit up and pay attention to her words. Hurston’s got the goods on some kind of truth. Characters exist in an alternate fictional world that closely resembles the real one we inhabit. Ann  Patchett wrote in State of Wonder,  “Hope is like walking around with a fishhook in your mouth and somebody just keeps pulling it and pulling it.” Holy cow, we shout, that’s exactly like me, no wonder I’m so bloody!

Plots mimic the messiness of our everyday lives. Ian McEwan wrote in Atonement, “We go on our hands and knees and crawl our way towards the truth.” Yep, I know just how it feels to go through that. My knees are always bloody. My belly too. At the end of a story, writers cite the practical application of how to get along with each other, how to be compassionate, and how to love the people we hate. Khaled Hosseini wrote in The Kite Runner,  “It’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out.” I’ve been running too long. We recognize ourselves in his story even if we’ve never been a child in Afghanistan. Time to turn and face the truth. 

The resolution tells the reader how it might come out if we follow the suggested format.  Nicole Strauss wrote in The History of Love, “So many words get lost…There was a time when it wasn’t uncommon to use a piece of string to guide words that otherwise might falter on the way to their destinations.” Is that a possible answer to my problems? Our heart calms. Just put my thoughts together until they make sense, and deliver them as needed? Writers may not have God’s divine directives leading us with a heavenly flame toward eternity, but they have some sense of practical life experience to shine enough light to make sense of our human disorder. Somerset Maugham wrote in The Painted Veil, “One cannot find peace in work or in pleasure, in the world or in a convent, but only in one’s soul.” Finally we know, it’s up to me to search my own soul, and Maugham showed me how.

My favorite stories are the ones where I see bits of myself, a mirror held to my inner being, even the ugly, desperate me, and espy another way to approach the way I live in the world, a better way, a more universal way of belonging. My favorite authors deliver again and again, new prophets guiding me, nudging me, warning me. Fix it, fix yourself, get it right for once. At the end of a really great book I feel enlightened, perhaps empowered. At least I want to get back into writing my own work and make it better. And that’s a good thing.

What makes you want to get back to work?

 

Image courtesy Pixabay.com public images

Writing at the End of Time

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I, the writer, engage in both boringly ordinary and sublimely spectacular moments. Same as those who don’t write. I work for financial compensation and volunteer on behalf of others. I hose down the house and muck up the garden, maintain my aged mode of transportation and renovate our humble abode, bungee jump off bridges and plunge into new experiences, practice a new language and exercise my health routine, spelunk into caverns and hike mountain peaks, sip aged wine and taste new olive oil, celebrate with family and tolerate acquaintances, curse and pray. Same as everybody, I live. (OK, maybe I’ve never bungee jumped off anything, but I’ve hopped off curbs. Perhaps I exaggerate a bit about spelunking as I’m a bit claustrophobic, and I don’t indulge in alcohol, but you get the idea about new adventures – right? As for my health routine, well, I routinely think about it.)

After all that living, I, the writer, scratch my brain, crank my imagination, and extend my fingers to write. My daily life shows up in the fun house mirror of stories. Annoying challenges reflect in the bizarre twists of fantasies. Nagging questions appear as labyrinthine mysteries. How I function in the here and now influences the exceptional world bidden by my mind, crafted by my pen. (And I always say it’s all entirely made up. Well then there’s the bungee jumping…)

I, the writer, make time. Like some nebula nursery gathering clouds of dust and gas to become new stars, I birth time to write. Stolen from housework or bill paying, filched from shopping or TV watching, borrowed from sleep, I make time each day to write. The books I read, those I write, my own blogs, and blogs of other writers get my attention on a regular basis because I make time to participate in the writing world. Whatever the debate about who may call themselves a writer or a wannabe, no one who doesn’t write can claim they do.

Writing is what I do for myself, my indulgence and my passion. It’s the raw nerve that jolts at the touch of a dandelion seed floating past my brow. I write about how that feels so you can experience it without the bruise from the fluff. (See what I take for you, dear Reader?) Writing lets me fulfill my childhood potential, kindling the blaze of glory that the young Sharon Lynne Bonin promised one day to become. Writing reminds me that, bedraggled as I am, I still have the chops to produce something of merit in my life, a legacy to leave my kids, and a story for others to savor. This is true because I live as well as write. I experience as well as observe, act and imagine.

Sometimes life catches up and runs roughshod over my plans. (Best laid plans of mice and men, and all that. Thank you, Robert Burns. I am certainly the wee beastie in a panic as the plow roars my way.) Snuffs opportunities. Routs the resources. Demands more of my percentages than I’ve ever had to post in that imploding red column. So when all that living converged in one big ball of everything happening all at once last year, I found myself as lost as if I’d been swallowed by a black hole. The swirling galaxy wasn’t all bad; it was just logjammed. Star jammed! New family member (adorable and brilliant grandchild,) more volunteer responsibilities (a chance to grow,) old obligations resurfacing (blegh!) How the hell do I find time – make time – to write when I can barely find time to eat and sleep? (Of course the sleeping has been much curtailed; the eating – not so much.) Sometimes the only thing I can do is exactly what I did this past year. I ground everything that I normally do to a complete halt and dealt with my new world order. I took off a year of writing this blog because it was the only flexible time I had that could be given up.

Starting my blog again has been more difficult than I imagined. I’m trying to build a relationship with an infant who lives 350 miles away and maintain the relationship with her older brother and her parents. Other family live nearby and I try to participate in any part of their lives where they’ll invite me. Over 600 emails throb in boldface in my inbox, most of them blog posts from other writers, and I’ll eventually read all. I’ve missed a year of articles I should have written for my personal blog and worry that my followers, feeling abandoned, have abandoned me. Three books each need my effort in the query department so I can catch the attention of potential agents and see them on their publication launches.

Welcome to my expanding solar system. Please hang tight while I figure out the orbital coordinates. Hello old world, hello new.