How I Get Things Done

As someone who takes on too much, I can go from zero to excess in a day. And some days this catches up with me and I freeze. What am I supposed to do next? I keep lists and index cards, journal entries about what I want to do, but sometimes (maybe once a week?) I just have to pick one thing and go for it. Like revisions on the first draft of my fourth novel.

In order to focus, I packed my work bag with just that draft, no other word work to use as an escape. I did not take my iPad, and my phone is too small for writing. I took a stack of messy pages, some blank scribble paper and sat down with four other writers who were intent on their own work. Group pressure, however subtle, helped. If they were working, I would work.

I got out my red pen and went for it, adding detail–what I call plugging the holes–correcting sloppy syntax, questioning the factual bits and making a list of what needed fact checking, like what route the character is traveling. It wouldn’t do to have her on I95, which runs from Maine to Florida, when she’s driving from Montana to Louisiana. And circling typos, which apparently slip in like cockroaches while I sleep.

By the end of the writing session I had thought of a visual tool that has already proven to be useful. The first draft I had printed out on blue paper. (Yes, I work best on paper.) This second draft I’ve started to print on yellow paper. It’s a vivid measure of how much I’ve progressed. Quirky, but we writers all have our quirks, thank goodness.

Stagecraft in Fiction & Memoir

Immersed in writing a fourth novel, I’m thinking about the overlap between live theater and the narrative forms of fiction and memoir. Theater has the advantage of the visual set, no need for description of the place or the characters.There they are, well lighted, voices projected to the upper gallery, free to move in meaningful ways.

However, (You knew there was a turn coming, didn’t you?) the written narrative has the advantage of taking us inside the character. Those internal monologues are useful to the reader who cares about things like motivation and impulse control, etc. No need for squishy dialogue between characters to enlighten us.

I read up about directing in theater, a role somewhat like that of the author, who must create a workable story from the following bits and pieces:

Casting: appearance, attitudes, demographics, fear, love, etc. All named and every single one necessary to the story.

Blocking: entrances, exits, proximity to other characters or to important props. I fret if a character is standing idle while others talk. I tend to send them off stage, go get lunch or use the bathroom. Just don’t hang around while others discuss the murder suspect.

Set: too much is too much; in fiction it leads to description overkill; think interior scene or exterior; lighting; noises off stage.

Props: every item has meaning; Chekov’s famous dictum says a gun that appears in Act One must be fired in Act Three. I’m probably going to ignore this, because there is a gun that must not go off in my story.

Dialogue: concise, meaningful, not an info dump telling the reader by means of cross talk, and the wonderful option of interior monologue: She thought, I should not have gone down those cellar stairs.

Time frames: stage time, aka, elapsed time in the story, vs audience time. How long will theater patrons sit? How many hours will a reader devote to the book?

Action: meaningful (see dialogue, speaking is action), reveals emotion, includes posture, voice modulation, facial expression in addition to the punching, the stabbing, the driving while angry.

Tension: rising action, interaction between characters as well as between text and the reader: often a result of resistance, suffering.

I’ve written exactly one play and vowed never to do it again. Once the script was in the hands of the director and out of my hands, I felt like I had abandoned a child in the train station, and it was going on a long journey without me. But story is story and has its place on stage or between the covers of a book. Think about it.

All About Poets #2

In the 1980s I taught composition and intro to literature at LSU-Shreveport (Louisiana), and of course, teaching meant the occasional academic conference, often an offshoot of Modern Language Association. The one in question here might have been at Texas Christian University, but the true location is mired deep in my faulty memory.
      What stands out is the poet who was a special guest, Lucille Clifton. Ignoramus that I was, I went to her reading because it was at least poetry after a full craw of collegiate oatmeal. The thing is, and I’m now appropriately embarrassed, I had never heard of Clifton. To my credit, I still remember her reading “homage to my hips.” Well now, here was a woman with no apology about her body. One could learn something about feminism from her, and I was then devouring books by Gloria Steinam, Germaine Greer, and Adrienne Rich. And that one poem did more to awaken me than I can say.
     A call to reality in a world of cosmetics and body shapers is still one of the benefits of poetry, and I’m still cooking it up and swallowing it whole. So thank you, Lucille Clifton, for that pinprick in my angst about body image.
     You know, though, there’s a bit of grit on my tongue here: after the reading Clifton was seated in the front row of the meeting room and in passing I told her that I had liked her poems. (Liked? A watery compliment for a reading that has stayed with me for decades.) And then, I asked if she had a book out. The only excuse I can think of for my ignorance is that the introducer made hash of her remarks and why the hell were there no books in view? There, I blame my faux pas on the host institution, wherever it was.
     Just so you know, Clifton has in her resume the National Book Award, Juniper Prize and a couple of nominations for the Pulitzer. Her first book, Good Times, was one of the ten best books of 1969 according to the New York Times. In 1969 I was chasing a toddler and writing exactly zip, zero, nada.

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?

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.

 

Contagious Poetry

Binge reading Edward Hirsch’s books about poetry, in How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, I found the origin of his introduction to poetry. As a boy he was, on a rainy day, looking for something to read and found in one of his grandfather’s books a poem, handwritten and unattributed. Seems his granddad habitually copied poems that he liked into the blank pages of his books. Edward, at eight years old, was captivated by the evocative rhythms of the poem and caught a severe case of poetry. The poem—Emily Bronte’s “Spellbound.” An apt title.

I was, by comparison, late to the party. As a teenager, I clipped John Lennon’s poems from a magazine and taped them to the wall in my dorm room. But that was more a part of the Beatle Mania that infected millions of girls our age. Later, much later, in the process of continuing my nursing education, I took an elective course in literature, the source of contagion. And I read Walt Whitman’s “Son of Myself.” OMG! I remember being alone in my living room and wanting to jump up and run around the room, to show someone this amazing poem. I still revere Uncle Walt. Then there was another elective course in creative writing, and then Intro to Lit, and my first attempts to join the tribe of scribblers.

My education did lead to a BS in Health Science, but it was almost derailed by my fascination with literature. I fell so in love with the written word, that I strayed, promiscuously, into a graduate program in English, and taught comp and lit. And, reader, I wrote poems. Way went on to way and I earned an MFA in Poetry.

So here I sit, in a hotel in Denver, one of the 150 or so poets who will devote the next four days to poetry. It’s a chronic condition and I so hope there is no cure.

Jake Adam York

Almost at the end of National Poetry Month, browsing a library display, I found Abide/Poems by Jake Adam York. York, now deceased, has been widely admired, especially by Colorado writers and readers. An associate professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver, he edited the journal Copper Nickel (http://copper-nickel.org/).

Abide, says David Wojahn in his cover blurb, is “an intricately layered threnody for the martyrs of the civil rights movement …” In the author’s afterword, York says that this book is both elegiac and ethical. He grew up in the US South, a white man writing about the ugly divide he had witnessed between his kind and the people of color who suffered, and who still suffer. Often the poems are couched in the language of the blues, honoring the birth of the genre in black culture.

York’s poems comfort and distress me, turn by turn. The beauty of his language draws me into the horrors of our history. His loss is great, but I am beyond pleased to have his work to sustain the movement toward equality.

 

READ FOR EQUALITY