Writing by Recipe?

Writing workshops are useful. I like being in a room full of scribblers, hearing about the variety of projects underway, discussing questions that come up and inform us all how we might structure a piece of writing. But…the approach to writing is, at times, like a cookbook: add more detail to spice it up, tenderize the love scene, chop the plot to a fine mince.

Makes me want to run out of the room, go sit under a tree and write like a chattering squirrel. Of course, February in Colorado is not conducive to writing en plein air.

Recently, I heard that in long narrative we should aim for 25% telling and 75% showing. Ouch! I would not know how to determine those percentages. Once I’ve written a scene, I want to know if it holds my attention, doesn’t bore the reader, reveals some truth–big or small–about the characters, moves the plot along. I’m driven by characters and they just don’t behave according to prescription. That’s the joy of fiction and memoir. Surprise!

I’m sure that the recommendation about these percentages comes from a sincere attempt to help a writer who’s lost in the word forest. But I also wonder if this advice originates with a publisher who has parsed the genres and most often accepts the expected. They can tell the bookstore or the library exactly where to shelve the book in question, because it’s very much like other books in its genre.

If I ruled the publishing world, (not likely) I’d tell writers to write their story as best they can, let their imaginations run loose, and then have honest beta readers comment on the effect of the manuscript. No mathematics allowed.

The Wisdom of Donna Leon

Friday morning, sitting in a coffee shop, I’m back at work. My work is writing, although I spent yesterday, a snow day, reading crime novels, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series set in Venice. Leon is prolific having written over 24 books in this series and several more in other categories. My intent was to binge read and let my own fiction, poetry, non-fiction rest and ripen. I know that if I take an occasional break, I go back to work with renewed energy. But Leon’s fiction is not escapist. Sure, it’s set in Venice, a place I’d love to visit, this Armchair travel, an excuse to read, drink tea and not worry about production or driving on snowy roads in Colorado.

Here’s the thing, though. In every “crime novel” that I’ve read in Leon’s oeuvre there is a large issue that affects the plot line and the reactions of her characters. The plot of the first book in the series, Death at La Fenice, develops around issues of homophobia and sexual child abuse. In Blood from a Stone the issues are immigration and racial inequality. Yes, in the lovely tourist-filled city, issues rise that challenge us all. Plot lines etched on the page are set like rough jewels in the middle of a nuclear family with reliable parents, believable offspring, domestic issues of homework and grocery shopping, a solid, sexy, loving marriage. And any of the characters, whatever their involvement in bringing the villains to justice, might reveal a concern I share, like polluted air: “What Redeemer could come and save the city from the pall of greenish smoke that was slowly turning marble to meringue?” (Death at La Fenice, 148)

The real message today is this: categories for literature are not absolute, can be unreliable restrictions. If I want to read more of Donna Leon’s work, I have to go to “Mystery” or “Crime Novels” in the library or bookstore. She obviously exceeds these labeled categories and reassures me that whatever we write might be just what the reader needs. Fiction, poetry, memoir—any genre can inform and inspire us. And as writers we have the privilege and responsibility of deepening our understanding of reality even as we “make it up.” If one reader is enlightened, reassured, challenged, or distracted from grief, a writer has done the world a favor.

Blind Date with a Murder Mystery

A couple of weeks ago I plucked a novel by Sara Paretsky off a library shelf. I was vaguely familiar with her name, in part because she has written nineteen novels, but it was sort of a blind date and we just didn’t hit it off. I read a bit and set it aside. Then I heard an interview with Lee Childs on BBC World Book Club. Childs praised Paretsky. He is quoted on the front cover of her book: “Sara Paretsky is a genius.” I like his novels, so I decided to give her another chance. Right decision!

Back to the library, this time I checked out a V. I. Warshawski mystery, Fallout. My first clue that I was in for a good read was the acknowledgements at the front of the book, what I imagine might be like a speed dating intro. The book is set in Kansas; I’m working on a novel set in Kansas; a county sheriff figures prominently in the action; I have a county sheriff as an important character; racial tensions play an important part in Fallout; I have biracial characters; cars are important in Paretsky’s book; my fictional car is a Porsche, a very important Porsche. Oh, yes, and one of her characters is connected to the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. As a military wife, I spent several months there while my spouse was enrolled.

Then again, there’s the coincidence of my surname, Douglass, and Paretsky’s setting in the Kansas county of Douglas. Yikes! I’m happy to report that I’m already halfway through the initial draft of my novel, so I don’t fear her influence, and I welcome her company. I have only the final conflict to read in Fallout. I had to stop. I’d missed my usual bedtime by two hours last night, but I will resume reading today. I am so glad I took Childs’ advice and remet Sara Paretsky. I think we will have a long and fruitful relationship.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

The old year, 2018, was productive and safe, despite the grief of the daily news. I’ve had poems published, made a good start on a new novel, one in a genre I’ve not written before, pared away some distractions from my creative work, and still maintained friendships.

Looking into the deep well of 2019, I intend to keep writing (as if I could stop!), remain healthy and read any book that catches my attention, reserving the right to put it back into the library bag unfinished if I’m not captivated. Life is short, boredom a burden I choose not to bear.

I’d like to write more reviews, be more faithful to this blog, walk more, watch birds more, spend a few days sequestered with my journal and manuscript. I’ll help publish a couple of books of poetry, and I may seek a literary agent for the novel. That has not worked for me in the past–time consuming and generally frustrating–but I’ll consider it.

Here’s to all who visit this site, Happy New Year. Stay awake, don’t hurt anyone, write like it’s a debt you must pay to the universe.

Persistence & Politics

Regular readers here will recall that from time to time I urge them to READ FOR EQUALITY. In our fractured, limping-along democracy this continues to be a responsibility, although some days I wonder why I bother.

Then I read something like Tracy K. Smith’s new book, Wade in the Water, and I’m reawakened to the power of creative writing. Smith uses as some of her poems verbattem letters written by black soldiers in the War Between the States. (It was anything but civil.) That we have a black female Poet Laureate of the US matters too.

Now I’m reading Zora Neale Hurston’s  Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,”  written in 1927 about Cudjo, an African who entered the US as a slave in 1859. The book was just published in 2018. Why it took so long to have this on my library shelves, I cannot fathom, but thanks to an astute librarian and Alice Walker, it’s finally available.

I remind myself, too, of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by “the little woman who started this big war” in President Lincoln’s words, more or less.

And there’s Nellie Bly, who, in Ten Days in A Mad-House, wrote about the  rotten mental health care in this land of the free and helped bring about reforms in that milieu.  And lest we forget, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle brought about change in the meat-packing industry and led to our Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Both of these two matter to us all, an issue of equality between the haves and have-nots, the powerful and the powerless.

When you think that what we do as writers doesn’t matter, read these books and others like them and again give your gifts to a sore and tired world. Even if you provide respite from worry, it’s important. Just do it, persist–please.

All About Poets #3

Diane Wakoski has long been one of my favorite poets. Initially, her book titles drew me in: The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch, Waiting for the King of Spain, Emerald City of Las Vegas. Who could resist? Certainly not a woman trying to find her own assertive voice in life as in poetry. Her only title that ever disappointed was Diamond Dog, and that one is not on the Wikipedia list. It was, however, on the availability list of the buyer for a local poetry book club, and I had suggested we read something by Wakoski. That book did not go over well, too difficult, too esoteric, too everything that the group rebelled against. Well, so much for their poetic taste. Then again, one book is not sufficient in appreciating a huge oeuvre like hers.

If only the buyer had selected Wakoski’s compilation volume, The Butcher’s Apron: New and Selected Poems [Black Sparrow Press, 2000]. My copy is nicely worn and better yet, signed. One primo reason that I attended the AWP Convention in Denver (2010) was to hear Wakoski read. And I did. What’s more, I had a brief conversation with her on the convention floor, where she signed the book and asked for a signed copy of one of my books. That year The Great Hunger was on display at the convention and I snagged one for her. We emailed a few times after that meeting and when I issued a second edition of Red Goddess Poems, Diane graciously wrote a blurb for the back cover.

In her prose, Towards a New Poetry [University of Michigan, 1980], Wakoski writes that she wanted to be a poet, not a teacher or editor, a poet. When I get snagged by the foolish idea that I should do something besides play with words, I think about her dedication to this art and go back to what I too love for no practical reason. From her first book in 1962, Coins and Coffins, Wakoski has been a star in my poetic firmament. Long may she shine.

I, You, He/she/it/they?

Recently I attended a workshop on point of view and came away confused and overwhelmed. The teacher presented us with six versions of POV with short examples. Too much for me to absorb in one hour. And it all felt prescriptive, as if I ought to select a POV before the story or memoir begins. (Poetry never entered the room, ever the unwelcome guest in a garden party.)

So what do I think about POV? I think it grows out of the relationship between the writer and the reader. It has to do with distance. Mostly, it has to do with voice. Whose voice does the writer transcribe as the piece develops? And it makes its presence known in the language, especially the pronouns, those pesky little words that mean so much. First person–I, we–suggests but does not guarantee a closeness between the narrator and the reader. And it can be unreliable, or as a plural it can hint at connection or community. If a writer dares speak for others, well, go for it. In some cases, it can be useful. In Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” the whole town seems to be telling the story, and in that process revealing a common displeasure and disinterest in the history of the gentile but rebellious Emily. You might want to read this short story.

Really, there is no shortcut to finding the perfect voice to tell a story. Even in memoir we edit our language and revelations. I say, write the story as it comes, set it aside and go back when your head clears, hoping to find that the narrator keeps us reading and is somewhat consistent in telling the tale. Better still, notice how books you love (or hate) work. I’m currently reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer, who scored a Pulitzer for the novel. My inner jury is still sequestered. Greer makes some quirky turns in POV, startles me out of the flow of the story. Halfway through, I’m in no position to judge him. Besides, he has a major award, and I don’t. Does that tell you something?

Stuck? Go with it!

No one I know proceeds through a writing project without the occasional stutter step. Sometimes I fall, not from grace, but a face plant. Dry docked, shut down, blocked. Ouch! And that’s just the day that some skeptic asks how the book is selling, or when I’m doing a public reading. All I can do is shrug and own my stalled “career.” It’s momentarily embarrassing, a suggestion that, as my inner critic sometimes reminds me, I’m not really a writer. A real writer has an agent, an editor, a PR person, and a house on a hill. So what am I doing living in a basement apartment (which I actually like) and counting my dimes and dollars?

This angst is part of creative writing, as opposed to the popular image of authorship. My “ship” is a dinghy dragged up on the shore until I push it back into the water and take up the oars again. And row, maybe with no destination but an intent to go where the tide takes me. Just see what’s there and enjoy the sun and the breeze. It’s not a lost day if all I do is journal, muse on paper. (Hmm, that sounds like a line for a poem, or a new sandwich.)

If you too get stuck, just go with it. You might need a break, but I doubt you’re broken.

This One’s for the Birds

The workshop at Columbine Poets of Colorado today featured poems in honor of The Year of the Bird. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a conservation measure prohibiting the “pursuit, hunt, take, capture, kill or sale” of migratory birds in the US.

It has nothing but coincidence to do with the fact that this week I started circulating a poetry manuscript titled The Gift Bird. I will, however welcome whatever synchronicity ensues. I’ve become more and more fascinated by birds and I have many, many poems that refer to birds. In honor of all this avian coincidence, I offer you a list of some of my favorite books about birds.

Ackerman, Jennifer. The Genius of Birds

Barnes, Simon. How to Be a Bad Bird Watcher

Barnes, Simon. The Meaning of Birds

Cocker, Mark. Birders: Memoirs of a Tribe

Leck, David. The Life of a Robin

Lorenz, Konrad. King Soloman’s Ring

Moss, Stephen. A Bird in the Bush: A Social History of Bird Watching

Nicolson, Adam. The Seabird’s Cry

Peattie, Donald Culrose, Ed. A Gathering of Birds: An Anthology of the Best Ornithological Prose

Rothenberg, David. Why Birds Sing

Tudge, Colin. The Bird: A Natural History of Who Birds Are, Where They Came From, and How They Live

Young, Jon. What the Robin Knows

Read for Equality

Regular followers know that I sometimes list books or reminders meant to promote equality in publishing and reading. Well, here’s one that I want to highlight: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I chose to read this book because it will be featured at a book club this week in Boulder. By the time I finished reading and went to sign up, the discussion was already full. That’s a little frustrating but a good sign that adult readers have plenty to say about what is touted as a YA novel. That’s not half of it. This story takes us into the life of sixteen-year-old Starr, a black girl attending a primarily white school and managing to fit in, although at times she feels invisible and divided, her diction tailored, one vocabulary at school and another in her neighborhood. Quickly, we get in deep, as there is a white-cop-black-victim shooting, and Starr is the only witness. Add gangs, drugs, and poverty. Enough excitement yet?

From this point on the narrative tears through racial tensions, including Starr’s attachment to her white boyfriend and to her radical black father who loves her but opposes the romance. And that’s just part of the story. What I most appreciate is the view of family life, complexity of community, and character development as Starr wrestles with opposing decisions, to speak out about the shooting or to maintain a polished image in her affluent white school despite her impoverished home neighborhood. Additionally, the writing is fine, well developed and perfectly plotted. If this is YA, good for the young people who will read it. Better still for the adults who might not notice it without prompting.