Writing Change

I’ve always wanted to write.  In my teens I had a love for speculative and science fiction.  In particular, I loved dystopia and post apocalyptic stories.  Books like, Earth Abides, Alas Babylon, 1984, Brave New World, and On The Beach, were subjects that interested me.  In the movies, Planet of the Apes, Phase IV, THX1138, Silent Running and other similar stories drew me in.  I wanted to write those kinds of stories.

At sixteen I even started to write a post nuclear war novel that I titled, The Day After.  Sadly in 1983, after years of little progress that title was stolen from me by a made for TV movie of the same subject.  Figuring I’d never sell the title, I gave up writing it.  Likely for the best as I’d gotten stuck writing endless descriptions of the tools the people used with very little story or character development.

After that my writing went in two different directions.  One was professional, on my job I did a fair amount of technical writing (procedures, manuals, theory of operation guides) and the other was short stories.  My fiction writing was undisciplined and I tended to writing bursts, sometimes with years between producing anything.  Some of it was okay, but most lacked the polish a good story needed.

My tastes in books started to change as I entered my mid-thirties.  I read less fiction and more religious books on theology, preaching, the Bible and so on.  Most of my writing during this time of my life was actually sermons I wrote for church or various workshops I attended.  Again, my writing was in binges, based in inspiration that rarely came.  It was frustrating writing, with only occasional flashes of quality.

It was about this time that I started back to community college with an eye toward completing my BA.  I was already employed as a software engineer and after having to retake calculus twice, I decided that I’d pursue my dream of being a writer.  I left the engineering and math classes and entered the world of English and literature.

It wasn’t easy.  In addition to a lack of discipline, I also suffered from three problems when it came to writing:

  1. I couldn’t spell – seriously, I almost failed the 6th grade because I couldn’t remember how to spell words.  Once I asked a teacher how to spell, ‘of.’  If it wasn’t for spell checkers, on-line dictionaries and my wife, I couldn’t spell anything (really, took me three times to spell that word ‘anything’).
  2. I couldn’t read my own hand writing.  They almost held me back in the third grade because no one could teach me how to write with a pencil.  If it wasn’t for typewriters and now computers, I’d just be one of the carpenters banging nails into your house.
  3. Proofreading was a mysterious art beyond my comprehension.  I’ve been told the theory, even took a class in it, but for the life of me I just couldn’t seee tpyos.

I had to find ways to cope with these impediments.  A good computer, word processing software and internet access has helped tremendously.  On the proofreading front, it’s my wife who graciously does most of the copy editing for me.  Without the tools and help from my wife, I wouldn’t be able to write as I do today.  I still struggle with these issues, but I make small improvements with practice.

Progressing through my English degree, I learned to perfect my writing skills as I wrote paper after paper for my classes.  Each had tight deadlines and specific requirements.  This helped give me more discipline and control over my writing process.  There wasn’t anything magical in the education, just a willingness to work hard.

Something else happened as I progressed through getting married, and studying English – my tastes in literature changed.  While I still like a good SciFi story, it’s no longer the first thing I reach for.  I am more likely to pick up a history book or a biography.

Along the way I also ran into Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  Cameron’s concepts have refined many of my notions on what writing and creativity is all about.  I am especially mindful of her notion of “Breathing in.”  That is, doing things that feed your artistic soul or in her terms, the artist’s date.  For me that is things like hiking in the woods, reading, working in my wood shop, visiting art museums, seeing movies and so on.

Writing doesn’t all happen at the keyboard.  Much of it happens in the car on the way to work or while walking around the roots of a redwood tree.  This part – the words on the page – is just the result of a longer process of creativity. That was a notion I missed in my early years of writing.

Today I write in ways I never intended as a teen.  Most of my writing is on my blog where I’ve managed to mostly keep up a weekly writing routine.  This writing is generally personal essays, light humor and poetry.

Poetry is the other major change in my writing.  Until recently, I wasn’t much interested in poems.  I studied them when I had to at the university, but never had a passion for them.  Some of my professors did note from time to time that my writing had a ‘lyrical’ quality.  Oh, I wrote a few poems over the years.  Some in my 20s, a couple in my 30s.  There was a poem about a computer, a house that burned down and even a love poem or two.

But there was one transformational experience that has changed my writing. In, 2011 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  The radiation treatments have worked and I am three years post treatment with no re-occurrence. Last year I thought it was time I wrote a book and thought I’d start with a book about my experience with cancer.  I’d blogged about it, so the theory was that I’d just tidy those posts up, add detail to them and expand it into a nice work of prose.

I sat down to write
and just couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t get past the emotion of
those days,
those fears,
those tears.

A sentence wasn’t long
enough to contain
that short punch to the gut
of the call
from the doc.

Only in abstract,
only in vision,
only in emotion,
could I show that tale
where the world shifted
and perception changed.

Holding the feeling my hand
and seeing with my heart
was the only way
my brain could paint
a story for your eye.

Today I write different
Today I think different
I embrace change
and let my words take flight.

That book of poems,
now sits on the coffee table
with a red pen as Heather edits
and I contemplate the next step.

So I’ll close with this thought:
embrace the change that is you
and keep writing however you can.

Andrew

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What’s Impressionism Got to Do With it?: A Reflection on Showing and Telling

In reflecting on this idea of showing rather than telling in writing, my first thoughts go to some of my favorite Impressionist painters like Monet and Renoir. There is something about the way these artists present their subject matter that seems to be more about showing than telling, and there is something that writers can take from their approach.

Think about Monet’s haystacks or Renoir’s dance or garden party scenes, or his depiction of sisters. These paintings have a smudged quality to them, a blurred and dappled quality, that hints at and intimates the subject matter, rather than bludgeons the viewer over the head with it. The Impressionists were concerned with the play of light on a scene, the influences of nature, and sensual colors. Impressionists gave the viewer just enough to go on, they hinted at deeper meanings beyond the painted scene, and they created a mood, an ambiance. What Monet and Renoir are doing is showing, not telling.

In my own poetry, I find that, consciously or not, I am aiming for an impressionist quality: less telling, less obvious narrative. I like to give my reader flashes of a moment, the texture of an experience, a window into a particular emotion.

The more poetry I read, the more I realize that many poets lean toward a sort of impressionist, nebulous quality that I am attracted to. My conception of what impressionist poetry looks and feels like is somewhat similar to what the imagists were trying to do—folks like Ezra Pound and H.D. But what’s interesting about imagism is that the goal was clarity and finding the precise image to represent the subject. To me, words like clarity and precision seem to not fully represent what these poets do in their work. Take, for example, the famous Pound poem “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Many of us probably studied this poem in high school, and many of us were probably surprised, or perhaps annoyed, at its brevity, and its inaccessibility. Yes, it is precise, in the sense that it uses few words, but is it clear? The descriptions here are blurry, smudgy, much like the work of the Impressionist painters. Words like apparition, crowd, petals, wet all point to a blurry reality, and an unclear—at least initially—message. Pound is definitely showing, not telling, here.

Perhaps in this reflection on showing and telling, what is important to remember is that the ideal viewer or reader is not dumb. The reader does not need to be told what a certain image means—perhaps it is enough to show the reader that image and let it sit there, blooming with meaning.

Ray Bradbury was a master at this sort of thing: he would often describe a scene, with characters and dialogue, and then suddenly swoop the reader away from that scene and show them something else: a bird flying over a mountain, a river winding through a canyon, a sunset on some distant shore that the main characters would never see. He would show the reader these things, and trust them to make sense of it, to connect them with the overall meaning of the story.

And maybe at the core of this showing versus telling discussion is trust in our readers. Do we trust our readers enough to make sense of what we show them? Can we trust that we don’t have to explain every angle, every moment, every reaction? Can we be blurry, in the best sense of that word, and show our readers something, and have faith that they will meet us half way?

Baring it All: The Challenge of Short Poems

It was the evening of April 30, the final day of National Poetry Month, and I had just realized that I was four poems short of my goal of 30 poems in 30 days. Dinner was almost on the table, Game of Thrones was cued up, and wine was ready to be drunk. I knew if I waited to write until after all of that, it would be too late. So, I decided to write some very short poems to get my count. I felt a little like I was cheating, but I reminded myself that short poems have as much a place in poetry as long poems do—haiku and senryu, being the most recognized forms of short poetry. I reminded myself, too, of the power and punch of “The Red Wheelbarrow”by William Carlos Williams, one of my favorite poems:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

 

With the clock ticking, I returned to an article I had recently read in Outside Magazine by Eliza Griswold. Griswold researched and wrote about an ancient Pashtun folk poetry form called landay which is two lines and 22 syllables long. According to this article, landays are written primarily by women, and share intimate life experiences, including heartaches, sex, reflections on war, a woman’s position in society, and more. Landays pack a lot into 22 syllables. Take this one, for example:

When sisters sit together, they’re always praising their brothers
When brothers sit together, they’re selling their sisters to others.

(Incidentally, the syllable count changes when the poem is translated, which is why the above poem has more than 22 syllables.)

I decided to give the form a try.

What’s deceptive about short poetry, and short form poetry, specifically, is that it looks so easy. You’ve got limits, both line and syllable limits, and often, as is the case with haiku, senryu, and landay, you’ve got content limits. Haiku must be about nature, senryu about human mishaps and quirks, landay about life stories. Simple, right?

Writing in a truncated form like this requires you to leave things out. And knowing that you must leave things out to fit the form, means that what you leave in is all the more important. With only a handful of syllables, your poetry becomes bare, almost raw. An awkward line, or not-quite-right word can’t hide behind its better counterparts. It’s all out there, which means, of course, that any neuroses you might have already harbored as far as your writing goes, gets heightened, amplified.

As I began to piece my landays together, I looked again at the ones listed in the article and thought about “The Red Wheelbarrow.” None of these poems employ complicated language. There are no clever turns of phrase. No difficult literary devices to speak of. Nothing immediately sensational. They are simple, spare. What they all do, however, is withhold something, and this doesn’t just apply to their form.

Take “The Red Wheelbarrow.” We are told that “so much depends” on the wheelbarrow, but we don’t know what. We are given a scene, but no overt characters. The characters are implied: someone must exist to push the wheelbarrow, someone must feed the chickens.

In the landay above, we don’t know why the brothers sell the sisters, or why the sisters continue to sing their brothers’ praises, even after being sold. We don’t know precisely why this separation and inequality exist between the sexes.

This conscious withholding in content is what allows these short poems to be so powerful. With what little information provided, readers are left to fill in the blanks, to lend color and substance to the image that has been just barely sketched for us by the author.

In the end, I wrote my four landays. It was an exercise in holding back, and in being careful with language. I felt the weight of my words more so than I usually do. I felt as if I was playing with a Rubik’s cube, turning words this way and that, sliding words in, sliding them out again, until I had my perfect line-up of syllables, until each word packed just the right punch.

Here’s one that I produced, on the eve of April 30, just before food, fantasy, and wine:

Discharging

The boys come home, each in their time. Some look for-
ward: cabs, dates, summer; others burn to go back.

 

Tombstone, Tori Amos, and other Inspirations

“If there is a feeling that something has been lost, it may be because much has not yet been used, much is still to be found and begun,” so Muriel Rukeyser tells us in her 1949 book The Life of Poetry. This advice resonates with me especially this month, since it is National Poetry Month. And because it is National Poetry Month, I give myself the yearly writing challenge to write 30 poems in 30 days. Which is to say that I’ve been looking for “inspiration” (fodder, really) anywhere I can get it.

I’ve talked in posts past about not always grabbing inspiration when it came to me, and because of that, losing the idea, losing the poem. Rukeyser aptly lands on the feeling I am left with after not doing justice to an idea: lost. In other words, I have not used my idea, and it has gone elsewhere. But as quickly as Rukeyser acknowledges this loss, she reminds us that there is much “to be found and begun.” I love this. It’s inspiring!

Right before April begins, I usually think about what I want to write about during my mad dash toward 30 poems. Will there be a theme? Will I write in response to something? Will I just wing it? This being the fifth year that I’ve done this, I’ve found that if I can give myself something to respond to, things go much better. I produce consistent, more cohesive work. (So, for example, one year I wrote a poem per letter from The Dictionary of Imaginary Places).

Alas, this year, I did not land on a particular topic or theme, and so am floundering a bit, which has caused me to draw on the places I have found inspiration from in the past. Here are just a few, and maybe these might spark something in your writing:

  • My personal experiences. Ok, this might seem like a no-brainer. Doesn’t much of our writing spring from our experiences? Still, in recent years, I have tried to stay away from confessional type poetry, because I get bored of myself, plain and simple. I can only write so many thwarted love poems. But this April, I’m forcing myself to think about personal experiences I haven’t written about before, experiences that perhaps have been too personal or too tender. I’m going for the jugular this month.
  • Tori Amos lyrics. Even for those of us who know and love her music, we need decoder rings to figure out her meaning. Incidentally, her lyrics remind me a bit of the Irish poet Medbh McGuckian, who writes intricate, self-referential, complicated poetry. It’s exasperating to wade through her work, and yet, I love it. This is how I feel about Tori Amos: exasperated, but intrigued. Sometimes just listening to her music or looking at her lyrics will inspire something in me; other times, I’ve tried writing a poem in her style, which means trying my hand at obfuscation, layering, strange diction choices.
  • News stories. This worked for me last night, when I was at a loss for something to write about. Finally I stumbled across a short news story about a small fire in Tombstone, AZ, the site of the infamous OK Corral gun fight. The “town too tough to die” suddenly became my muse. It had been there all along (in fact, I had just visited recently, so it was fresh in my mind), but it had to be “found” anew to use Rukeyser’s word.
  • Calendars. I believe my calendar reflects who I am, and so choosing one each year is almost a sacred act. I often save my past years’ calendars, and have used them to inspire poems. One calendar that generated a handful of poems was a collection of old-timey travel advertisements from the 1920s-1950s. The art, the scenery, the outfits of the travelers, all proved to be good fodder for poetry.
  • Finally, women. As a woman, I am sometimes appalled at the dearth of knowledge I have about influential women in our world. And so, to right this wrong, come April I go in search of women. It’s like Dominoes: I Google a woman I have heard of, perhaps a poet, and I find out about women she knew, and who influenced her, and then I write about them.

These are a few ways that I get the creative juices flowing in April. I realize that all of these topics or ideas are there, have always been there, for me to find. Returning to Rukeyser’s words, these ideas were lost, only because I had not yet used them. I can always find them again, or for the first time. I can always begin, whether it’s April or any other writing month. And so can you.

What’s your advice to help someone get started in writing short fiction, poetry, or web serials?

Hello, December.  It feels like just yesterday that you knocked on my door to ask all kinds of probing personal questions about my writing goals and objectives for the year 2013.  And here we are one year later, and now you’re back asking for a progress report?  Please go away!

Does this conversation feel familiar to you?

Seeing less available writing time for 2014 due to a work promotion, I’m contemplating making the switch from stage plays and novellas to short fiction, poetry, or web serials.  I feel like I need to increase the frequency of “accomplishments” or “milestones”, which in my mind translates to completed works of writing rather than contributing to two or three longer works of fiction.

Although I’ve been writing fiction regularly for the past six or seven years, I’ll be honest in saying I’ve never really investigated methods to get started in writing shorter forms of fiction.  And other than plugging a few keywords into a search engine, I’m lost where to begin.

Below is a small sample of some of the questions in my head for several weeks now:

  • What online resources are available to help explore short fiction, poetry, or web serials?
  • What, exactly, is this Friday Flash notion I’ve read about for the past few years?
  • Besides haiku, what forms of poetry exist, and what resources exist to help improve writing them?
  • Where can I see some examples of web serials?

So what’s your advice to help someone get started in writing short fiction, poetry, or web serials?  Are there other forms of writing not mentioned here that you recommend one focus on?

The Burro

donkeyWhen I was in fourth grade, I wrote a haiku about a burro. At the time, I was living in a small town called Big Bear, which is in the San Bernardino Mountains, about three hours northeast of Los Angeles. I lived, along with my brother and mother, at the very top of a long dirt road, two houses from the start of forest, and burros were a real concern. Anyone who knew anything about living in Big Bear knew that you had to bungee your trash lids closed, so that the burros wouldn’t get into the trash and toss it all over the road. Sometimes, even if you did bungee it, and the bungee cords weren’t strong enough, the burros would find their way in, with the same disgusting and dismaying results. Picking up moldy apple cores, used tissues, and other kinds of terrible trash before the neighbors saw was a common occurrence at our house.  Either we forgot the bungees or ours were lacking in fortitude. So, when presented with the assignment in class of writing a haiku, I guess my 9/10-year old mind gravitated toward the burros and the myriad ways they often ruined my life.

My haiku, along with others I assume, was entered into a contest, and won. I remember feeling unbelievably proud . . . and surprised. Shocked, even. Shocked that someone out there had deemed my burro haiku worthy of recognition.

I wasn’t able to attend the ceremony where I would have been honored, but I did receive a ribbon and a special certificate that I do still have somewhere, buried in a box, along with my high schools yearbooks, angsty poem-filled journals, and yes, my treasured Phantom of the Opera perfume.

Ok, so how has the burro, the haiku, and the prize influenced my writing today? In some small, but important ways. First, I learned that I didn’t have to and don’t have to write poems about heartache. This might seem obvious to some of you better adjusted individuals out there, but that was frequently where my mind gravitated, even as a fourth grader. I learned that a poem about a dopey burro could serve just as well. Second, I learned I could be funny. Not that I, as a human being, could be funny, but that poetry could be funny, that it could be quirky and strange. Third, I learned that forms, like the haiku, were out there for my use and for me to bend to my will. Forms were fun; they didn’t have to be constricting. And fourth, in that year, I learned that what I did on the page, could garner me praise, attention, and recognition.  And that was cool. I liked the way that felt. And though outward recognition is not what drives me to write, it does serve as a good motivator. And, as any writer knows, motivation, however you come by it, is a good thing.

Poet, Author, Academic, Diplomat

For obvious reasons, we try to talk very little about politics on Today’s Author, but there are times when politics is an unwanted guest in the world of creative writing.

Kofi AwoonorUnless you are a current events avoider, I’m sure you’ve heard about the terrorist attack at the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya. What you may not know–I didn’t–was that one of those killed was a writer. His name was Kofi Awoonor.

Kofi Awoonor was, perhaps, the leading poet of Ghana. And if it wasn’t him, it was his cousin, Kofi Anyidoho. He was most famous for his poetry which was inspired by the oral tradition of the Ewe people. He studied at, then taught at the University of Ghana, before moving on to the University of London to study literature. He wrote several plays for the BBC, before moving to the US as a kind of travelling student/professor. After he returned to Africa in 1975 he became politically active, and was imprisoned without trial–after this his focus shifted and he wrote mostly non-fiction. From 1990 to 1994 he was Ghana’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and headed the UN’s committee against Apartheid.

He was killed hours before he was scheduled to perform at the Storymoja Hay Festival–a four-day celebration of writing, thinking and storytelling.

Perhaps, his most famous work, is the protest poem, The Cathedral.

THE CATHEDRAL
On this dirty patch
a tree once stood
shedding incense on the infant corn:
its boughs stretched across a heaven
brightened by the last fires of a tribe.
They sent surveyors and builders
who cut that tree
planting in its place
A huge senseless cathedral of doom.

Kofi Awoonor
1935 – 2013
Poet, Author, Academic, Diplomat

Introducing Prairie

Hello to everyone at Today’s Author! I am a new contributor, and I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce myself, my work, and to tell you what I hope to bring to the readership of Today’s Author.

I am a poet. It has taken me a long time to say that without qualifying the statement, or shrugging, or grinning nervously as though to say, yeah, I know, poetry is hard. I started practicing saying the statement as confidently as I could to my students, and seeing how it sat with them and with me. They were alternately impressed, blank, encouraging, or indifferent. For a while, I felt foolish. Now, not as much. I bring this up for two reasons: one, to tell you what genre I write; and two, to bring up the struggle that I think many artists face of naming themselves and owning that name without qualification.

I am also a college teacher. This, too, has taken some practice saying.  Once again, it has to do with reception. Saying I teach composition and research is met with a strange response, one that I can only categorize as self-demotion. For those of you who teach writing, you may have heard these kinds of statements: Well, I better watch my grammar around you, or Oh God, I better not show you my writing ever. As if I sit around all day waiting for someone to slip up. As if I diagram each sentence the moment it pops out of someone’s mouth, looking for a missing subject or predicate. As if what I know about writing is such a mystery that it cannot possibly be learned. I often wonder: do biologists get this kind of response? Or business majors? Or sociologists? Or math majors? No one says to the business major, Oh, I was just terrible at making money at my lemonade stand when I was a kid. What is it about writing that makes people shrink into themselves like salted snails, and immediately point out their own inabilities?

So, I suppose in identifying as a writer and in teaching writing, I have an over-developed awareness of fear as both a feeling on my part of telling people what I most like to do, and as a kind of barrier many people erect between themselves and the act of writing. And, if I’m honest, there’s the presence of fear in my own writing as well. How to begin? What to say? How to be original? In thinking about what I want to contribute to Today’s Author, one of the things I’d like to focus on is this idea of fear as an impediment to the act of writing, the experience of this fear by other writers, and the ways to battle with it. And I also want to focus on poetry—the process of writing poetry, the structural concerns a poet considers, the range of subject matter, and the importance of poetry in our literary landscape.

In my author’s bio, I briefly mentioned an interest in the confluence of cultural and personal experiences. I am interested in writing and reading about how the personal can always be found amidst the cultural/political. I recently watched a documentary about the British photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who died in 2011 covering the Libyan civil war. His photographs capture a more human, personal experience of the wars he covered. His photographs focus on the periphery of those wars: the abandoned house just to the right of the conflict, the graffiti left in the wake of fighting, sleeping soldiers, a woman staring at a man as he mounts a vehicle to leave for combat. Whether these things are on the periphery, as I suggested, or whether these things are actually the heart of the situation is something I’d hazard to say Hetherington thought about. In my own writing, I try for this perspective shift: to look at a subject, and then reroute my focus left or right, to see what or who is there, and then to write about that. When I read, I look for poets who do this: Brian Turner, Rita Dove, Randall Jarrell, Medbh McGuckian, amongst others.

My own writing process is often haphazard and unstructured. I work better with some kind of outwardly imposed framework. Each April (National Poetry Month), I challenge myself to write 30 poems in 30 days. I’ve been doing this for the past four years, and it works. I hit that number because I’ve told myself there’s no alternative. I just do it. Some years I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, which sets the challenge of writing a novel (50,000 words or more) in 30 days. These sorts of things work for me. I am excited to write for Today’s Author for many reasons: to be part of a community of writers, to contribute something to the field, and to produce writing on a deadline. Another way to put it: to produce writing without fear. There’s no room for fear when a deadline stares you down.

I look forward to interacting with the writers and readers of this blog, participating in the writing prompts, and contributing to this ongoing conversation about our personal and professional relationships with writing!