July 2018 | Two books on writing

Photo by Theresa Barker.

How often do we overlook the things in our own back yard?  Mt. Rainier is a beauty in my own state of Washington, and we can often see it from Seattle on clear days, but it has been a few years since I had a chance to visit this lovely and inspiring mountain.  Last week when family came into town planning a drive out to the Mt. Rainier National Park, I hopped in and went along. I wasn’t disappointed!  Even in the height of tourist season – late July – it was crowded in the park, but not mobbed, so we had a wonderful visit.  We sat on the porch of the National Park Inn at Longmire, at the base of the mountain, and looked out on this view.  It was wonderful.

Stands of green firs, glacial-rock channels of rushing water, piled-up white clouds. Even though I’d been to the Park a few times before I was still moved by being in such a natural place.

How often do we overlook the things in our back yard? When I got home from this trip with cousins I did some thinking about what I may have overlooked, caught up in everyday life. As writers we are uniquely gifted to notice things, the beautiful, the unusual, the details, the small things, things that are so important to our lives.

July is one of my favorite months. I think of it as the month right in the middle of summer. It’s a festive month with the Independence Day holiday at the start, and then rolling into the hot-ish month of August at the end. Just the name – July – sounds jubilant, jewel-like, and jazzy. Doesn’t it? August feels like cusp of summer, like we’re about to hit the “dog days” of summer and all too soon, the school days of autumn. But July, July is the festive month of summer abandon.

What I’m Reading This Month

I’ve come across two excellent craft books for fiction writers this month, Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, and When the Rewards Can Be So Great by poet Kwame Dawes. The Kwame Dawes book is a collection of essays by MFA faculty with Pacific University, ranging across poetry, nonfiction and memoir, and fiction. Workshops that were taught by MFA instructors were converted into essays on craft. Both inspirational and practical, these essays touch on how to find one’s own voice, the nuts and bolts of writing, and the key elements of a good writing process. For instance, “32 Statements About Writing Poetry” by Marvin Bell starts

  1.  Every poet is an experimentalist.
  2. Learning to write is a simple process:  Read something, then write something; read something else, then write something else.  And show in your writing what you have read.
  3. There is not one way to write and no right way to write.
  4. The good stuff and the bad stuff are all part of the stuff.  No good stuff without the bad stuff.
  5. Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, break the new rules.
  6. You do not learn from work like yours so much as you learn from work unlike yours. . . .

The Jane Smiley book has been a game-changer. It is both analysis of novels and the novel-writing process, and practical about how to become a novelist. The premise is that Smiley, when suddenly struck with writer’s block, decided to read 100 novels. In reading them she began to formulate her thinking about the novel:  what is a novel, who a novelist is, the origins and psychology of the novel, and so on. The analysis in this book is fascinating. And inspiring! Here is an excerpt, the opening of Chapter 3, “Who is a Novelist?”:

A novel has an author. The desire to write a novel is the single required prerequisite for writing a novel. . . . While the desire to write a novel does not guarantee that the resulting novel will be a good one, or, if it is, that the author will produce a string of good ones, it is the only way to begin. Most often it grows out of a compulsive habit of reading as a child. It was said of Sinclair Lewis that he was always doing two things at once, and one of them was reading a book. Charles Dickens was an avid reader as a boy; his dearest childhood memories were of reading The Tales of the Arabian Nights. . . .

I am definitely one of those who read voraciously from when I was very young. At night I would sneak a flashlight under the covers and read after lights-out. And even though I’ve written a couple of novels and countless short stories, I found this book presents new ways of thinking about the novel, and about novel-writing, than from any other book I’ve read. I have been recommending it to all my writer friends!

Writing Tip – 1st person vs. 3rd person

Chicago Buildings on a Ramp

In Steve Amick’s essay in the Kwame Dawes book he discusses the difference between first-person point of view and third person point of view. First person is in the “I” narrator (“I came into the grocery store and saw Mandrella there”), and third person is in the “he/she/it” narrator (“He went into the grocery store and there was Mandrella”). Any writer past the beginner stage is well-aware of the difference between these two points of view, but the interesting thing about Amick’s essay was that he pointed out when each point of view was at its best. For instance, in first person you have the advantage of immediacy and of strongly identifying with the main character, as though they were you, because of the “I” voice. When you read first person, the idea is that you feel as though you are the main character more than if you read third person.  In third person you have more distance from the main character, which can avoid some of the awkward hyper-intensity that can come with the first person. This is pretty straightforward.

However, Amick goes beyond the basics and talks about additional advantages or ways to use each of these points of view. In first person, you tell the story, but you can also tell the telling of the story. The first person viewpoint assumes the narrator has survived the story, and in doing so, they may be looking back on how it affected them and what they might have known or not known at a particular stage. Reflection on events might not be so readily available for third person, who is experiencing the events of the story as they unfold.

In third person, the main character’s story is told from the outside, although their thoughts and feelings may come into the story as part of the telling.  Depending on the author’s wishes, we may learn nothing about the characters thoughts (so-called “cinematic” style), only seeing the events and actions or dialogue that take place.  Or, we may be brought deeply into the character’s consciousness, hearing their thoughts and feelings about events along with the events that occur. Or somewhere in between!

But third person also allows statements to be made about the character from the author. For instance, “Arlan went into the hotel.  He was a short, wiry man who loved off-track betting and needed a financial shot-in-the-arm.  The man he wanted to see was waiting in the bar . . .” This type of description is also possible in first person, but would be much more wordy and indirect, as you’d have to hint at it through what Arlan though about himself. E.g., “I went into the hotel. I am always shorter than most men, and even though I tell myself I’m wiry and nimble, it still bugs me. I tried not to think about what would happen if I lost at the races again, or about the bills piling up at home. Being addicted to off-track betting is a definite liability if you want to eat. Or have an apartment. Or keep a spouse happy. I went into the bar and saw the man I’d come to meet . . . ”

As you can see from this short example, giving information about the character in first person can be longer and more indirect than in third person.  But you may have also noticed that first person gives you the chance to have a really interesting voice.  I’d say that the best first-person novels I’ve read have a very strong, unique voice, a voice that leads me to want to know everything about the character, not just a narration of events but their in-depth thoughts and reactions to the events happening in the story.  Richard Ford’s Independence Day, about a real estate agent whose business is failing and whose wife has divorced him is one example.  And I’ve always loved the classics Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brönte) and Rebecca (Daphne Du Maurier) as books with very strong voices.

Which brings me to the latest writing exercise I’ve been doing:  first person vs. third person. First I write a brief piece in first person, and then a second piece in third person. I started out telling the same story from each perspective, but after some practice I would write two different stories using the same title (from my exercise last month).  Here is “Crazy Glue”:

STORY ONE:  “Crazy Glue” – 1st person

I bought Gorilla Glue. It’s better for wood repairs. But Marcel got angry anyway. “I said Crazy Glue! What’s this s–?” I saw again the mean curl of his lip, the scar go white over his eye. The angry outbursts had started when I told him I was pregnant, and a part of me noticed that I’d let myself get involved again. Again. With a man who hates women. Who hates women. What was wrong with me? I knew better than to respond, though. “Crazy Glue,” Marcel continued, staring meanly. In French or in English he could be just as mean. I would not wait this time. My sister’s place was safe. I would leave tonight.

STORY TWO:  “Crazy Glue” – 3rd person

The band that called themselves Crazy Glue went on the road. Madison Wisconsin. Duluth Minnesota. Bismark North Dakota. The Midwest was good to them and their fans loved them. Even in the dead of winter when they had to come out in the 20-below weather, their fans made the inner bar scenes swelteringly hot. Crazy Glue made sales of their home-cut CDs and band-theme T-shirts. They considered adding coffee mugs, hip flasks, and key rings to their merchandise. The drummer had an uncle with a custom merchandise business who gave cut rates to family. But then they hit Sioux Falls Iowa, the venue backed out, and no alternate venue could be had. The plane ticket home was appealing, but they drove. Their equipment.

Are you up to the challenge of writing something in first person and then again in third person?  Try it!  You may be surprised by the results.

Thanks for joining me in thinking about summer and novel-writing.  Happy writing!

June 2018 | A bit about titles

Photo by Theresa Barker.

I’m sitting in my office this evening thinking about the ways in which our surroundings influence us.  Today is Independence Day in the U.S., and I hear the pops, cracks, and booms of fireworks (legal/illegal) outside my window.  It’s been a warm day for Seattle – 70s-80s – and deeply cloudy this evening, a strange sort of gloominess in the sky.  Yet the circle of light from my desk lamp casts a friendly light on my writing and this little evening moment with words connects me with writers all over the world, with writers of the past and those who will write in the future.  Words are our connections, aren’t they?  Language and thought and the poetry of conversation.

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Where do you like to write?  Whether in a nearby coffee shop, at the kitchen table, or (if you’re lucky enough) in a studio of your own, the place around you becomes a part of your writing. Right?  This week I wrote on the train, in a waiting room before an appointment, and sitting in a bus shelter waiting for my bus.  Each time my first thought was, I wish I was home at my desk writing!  But there I was, balancing my writing pad on my lap or scribbling in a notebook with my pen while sitting among strangers.  Then I might overheard a snippet of conversation, or I’d see two people talking together, something that would jump into my imagination and become part of my writing.  It was wonderful and strange at the same time.

Have you ever heard this quote?

“The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.” – Gustave Flauber

I hope you will just take a few minutes, whether you are on the bus, at your desk, or perhaps sitting at the beach or in a park enjoying these beautiful summer days – wherever in the world you call home, and think about this:  what is your most passionate belief?  How would you want to change the world, if you had the power to do so?  Consider this: If you had to list the five top things that you believe in, what would they be?  Perhaps you might jot down this list, but remember, you don’t have to share that list with anyone.  You can keep it in a drawer or crumple it up and toss it into the wastepaper basket.  But having thought a little about your most important beliefs may influence your writing in ways that you might never expect!

Writing Tip – Taking a title and making a story

In the past few weeks I’ve been experimenting with a new exercise.  Open a book of short stories, turn to the Table of Contents, and write down one of the story titles.  Then start your own story using the title of the story you wrote down.

Although you’d think it would be difficult to write a story with only the title to go on, this exercise has given me some unique and engaging results.

Let me share one example:

The Lottery Ticket (after the story by Anton Chekov)
Theresa Barker

Emile and I consented to buy the lottery tickets together.  Whatever happened we would split the winnings half-half, and since we both put in equally to the purchase, we thought it was simple, that nothing could go wrong.

But then there was the winning ticket that wet November night.  Emile had bought it with our pooled funds at the convenience store on his block.  He brought it to work the next day and when the winning numbers were announced we checked the ticket together, like we always do.

Imagine our surprise when all the numbers checked out.  A match!  We did not believe it at first.  You know how these things go and how much the odds are against winning.  No one more than us.  But still, it was there, every one of the thirteen digits a match.  What could we say?

It should have been simple. Emile and I splitting the pot half-half. But first there was the disagreement about whether to take the lump sum (less) or the annual payments (more). We had to agree, there was no doing it both ways. Then there was the part about if Emile should get more because it came from his purchase at the store in his neighborhood. Finally, I pointed out the lottery pool was my idea in the first place and perhaps I should receive a larger share.

That led to therapy in which we both examined childhood, school traumas, lost boyfriends/girlfriends. In the end it was just too expensive, too complicated, too deadening. We gave the ticket to a charitable group that provides eyeglasses to orphans in distant countries and they were happy for the windfall. Emile and I didn’t speak again. We work in different locations of the same company. We never buy lottery tickets together.

After you have tried this exercise a few times, you may find, as I did, that I started to think about story titles a little differently.  Practicing with already-set story titles has helped me to explore new ways of finding my own story titles.  I’d love to hear what you think!

Thanks for joining me in thinking about beliefs, story titles, and summer.  Happy writing!

May 2018 | An Exploration of Voice

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Photo by Theresa Barker.

 

When I stroll down my block, or look around my yard this time of year, there seem to be flowers on the shrubs everywhere.  As I think about the progression of the seasons I often wonder why I don’t remember how bright and festive the lavender blooms on my rhododendron are, or how lively and engaging the tiny white flowers on my thyme bushes can be.  But even so, the surprise of discovering flowers bursting forth this time of the year can be delightful; perhaps more so because each year the flowers seem altogether unexpected and new.

Writer Pam Houston has said, “I’m about going out in the world and noticing stuff, going home and writing it down, and putting it next to other stuff I’ve noticed and seeing what happens.”  And borrowing from our glimpse of William Carlos Williams’s work last month, Williams was all about noticing the little things around us, the things that change from day to day or things that we have never stopped to look at.  Paying attention is a huge part of a writer’s job, a writer’s inspiration.

It is easy to become discouraged as a writer.  Almost all of our work is done alone, in a solitary manner.  We often go long periods without having a way to measure if our work is good, or if it has reached a reader.  Yet we can always stop and look at things around us, come back to our desks, and write about what has caught our attention.  It may be the floating wings of the seasonal Monarch butterfly, or it might be the overlapping waves in a pond’s ripples.  It may be the cry of a child in distress, or the sound of our loved one’s whispers.  What has caught your attention lately?  How are you bringing those things attended to into your writing?

Work In Progress – “Little Books”

I’m excited to say that I have completed my small manuscript of stories about lies, The Little Book of Lies.  What a great feeling to go through the story collection in this small chapbook-length collection, about 25,000 words long, and to see new worlds, people and places that have come to life in these stories.  A few of the stories have been published in 2017, and I’m starting to send out some of these stories for submission to short story journals.  (To view published stories, click here!)

What’s up next?  I have two companion collections in progress, The Little Book of Monsters, and The Little Book of Fables.  While these are all short-length manuscripts for commercial publication, my poet-friends tell me that chapbooks are often part of a poet’s work.  A smaller-length book seems to fit well for flash fiction as it does for poetry, which many of the stories are.

Writing Tip – Building Voice

Recently I’ve been reading Mary Karr’s book on memoir, The Art of Memoir.  Although her book focuses on developing the memoir, Karr talks quite perceptively about the importance of a strong and unique voice, something that grabs the reader’s ear and makes you want to keep reading all the way to the end.  This is particularly important for fiction also.

Let’s take this example from Harry Crews’s startling memoir Childhood, The Biography of a Place (suggested by Karr):

The man got two Cokes out of the scarred red box behind him and Uncle Alton paid him.  We went on back to where the men were talking.  They all spoke to Uncle Alton in the brief and easy way of men who had known each other all their lives.

They spoke for a while about the weather, mostly rain, and about other things that men who live off the land speak of when they meet, seriously, but with that resigned tone in their voice that makes you know they know they’re speaking only to pass the time because they have utterly no control over what they’re talking about:  weevils in cotton, screwworms in stock, the government allotment of tobacco acreage, the fierce price of commercial fertilizer. (19,20)

For contrast, here is the ending of Hemingway’s “The Hills Like White Elephants”:

He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks.  He looked up the tracks but could not see the train.  Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking.  He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people.  They were all waiting reasonably for the train.  He went out through the bead curtain.  She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.

“Do you feel better?” he asked.

“I feel fine,” she said.  “There’s nothing wrong with me.  I feel fine.”

And, one more, an excerpt from James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”:

When he [Sonny] was about as old as the boys in my classes his face had been bright and open, there was a lot of copper in it; and he’d had wonderfully direct brown eyes, and a great gentleness and privacy.  I wondered what he looked like now.  He had been picked up, the evening before, in a raid on an apartment downtown, for peddling and using heroin.

I couldn’t believe it; but what I meant by that was i couldn’t find any room for it anywhere inside me.  I had kept it outside me for a long time.  I hadn’t wanted to know.  I had had suspicions, but I didn’t name them.  I kept putting them away.  I told myself that Sonny was wild, but he wasn’t crazy.  And he’d always been a good boy, he hadn’t ever turned hard or evil or disrespectful, the way kids can, so quick, so quick, especially in Harlem.  I didn’t want to ever believe that I’d see my brother going down, coming to nothing, all that light in his face gone out . . .

You can pretty quickly pick up a difference among these voices in the three examples above, and you can imagine that those differences come from the cadence of the author’s voice, from the rhythms in the sentences, from the language and word choices.  Hemingway’s recognizable simple declarative sentences, Baldwin’s richly descriptive phrases and his narrator’s internal reflections, and Crews’s deep-dive into the rural tobacco-growing part of Georgia where he grew up.  An author’s voice may be different from one book to the next, from one story to the next, but making a voice memorable and authentic in our work is a powerful way to capture the reader’s interest. It makes our work especially memorable!

Making the voice authentic – that is the challenge, of course.  How to do this?  As you may have discovered, just by writing, and by studying other writers whose work you admire, you’ll uncover the voice that you feel is true to your work.  Take a look at poetry for language and cadence – even reading a few poems before starting your writing day can help you tap into a more lyrical pattern of prose.

Thanks for joining me in this exploration of voice. A strong and unique voice can make our work even more amazing!

April 2018 | Productivity Through “Improvisations”

Photo by Theresa Barker.

I am sitting at my desk this Sunday morning, looking out at the overcast sky that promises sun later on. The 100-foot Douglas Fir tree outside my window is popping forth with small orange mini-cones – pollen pods? – on the tips of its green-needle branches, like little kernels of orange popcorn dusted across its boughs. A squirrel prances along a long branch inside the sheltered-needle casing of the tree, two – no three! – stories above the ground.

Squirrels are so amazingly unafraid to scamper along waving boughs of maple trees in my neighborhood, or atop the thin wire of an electrical connection to the power pole outside. They seem to think nothing of it. It makes me think: what am I afraid of, and how might I overcome my fears? Years and years of evolution have probably given the squirrels in my yard their tight claw-grip paws, the body-balance to scurry across slender passages of twig and wire to obtain what they need. Years and years of evolution. I am reminded that while their acrobatic feats are impressive, squirrels do have the deftness and agility to make their leaps and death-defying treks across branches and wires without falling.  Thinking about this, I can be inspired to continue to overcome my own fears, if I have the strength, determination, and preparedness to go forward in spite of my fears.  How about you?  What fears would you like to overcome?

Photo by Theresa Barker.

In Celebration of Earth Day, a poem

Today is Earth Day!  I came across this wonderful poem, aptly named, by Jane Yolen, “Earth Day,” and I thought you would enjoy it as well.

Earth Day
By Jane Yolen

I am the Earth
And the Earth is me.
Each blade of grass,
Each honey tree,
Each bit of mud,
And stick and stone
Is blood and muscle,
Skin and bone. . . .

Just reading this first stanza, I can feel an enduring connection between us and the earth.  “Each blade of grass, each honey tree, each bit of mud . . . ”  Even though it is only words on a page, you feel drawn into the natural world when you read it.  Ah, the power of poetry to transport us into another reality!  Isn’t it amazing?

Poetry Study – William Carlos Williams

I have been studying poems by William Carlos Williams in a course I’m taking at the University.  Spring and All is a collection containing twenty-seven poems, along with bits of prose and prose excerpts, Williams’s reflections.  These poems that include his famous “The Red Wheelbarrow” (No. 22):

XXII (The Red Wheelbarrow)
By William Carlos Williams

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

The instructor in our poetry course talks about Williams’s conviction for paying attention, for noticing what is before us.  Williams believed that if we want to write poetry, or if we want to simply live in the world, we need to pay attention, notice things, not just go through life with our minds elsewhere.  He began a movement:  at a time when his contemporaries, notably T. S. Eliot, were writing about literary allusions and the decline of humankind, following WW I, Williams chose to focus on the real, the what’s-in-front-of-you details of his world.  – His work was the inspiration for the Beat Poets, thirty years later!  In this poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” it’s as though he’s saying:  so much comes out of the simple sight of a red wheelbarrow shimmering with rain from a recent shower, surrounded by bright-white feathery chickens.  Pay attention! he’s saying.  There is so much to gain from a small pleasurable sight, right outside our back door.

What do you see outside your back door?  What do you notice on your way to work, or school?  Are you noticing the small budded branches of trees and shrubs that may be starting to form spring leaves?  Do you hear the sudden chirping of birds returning from winter migrations?  Or perhaps you’ve seen small bumble bees or honeybees starting to visit spring flowers!  (I heard on Science Friday the other day there are more than 100 different species of bees native to the U.S., from bumble-bee size all the way down to the size of a grain of rice.  Green bees, too!)  There is so much to see around us, isn’t there?

Writing Tip – Improvisations

Are you sometimes hesitant to start something new?  Or, perhaps you are eager to write a new story, but can’t quite bring yourself to go back and finish a story or poem that you started a while back?

This month I learned that William Carlos Williams did an amazing experiment when he first began publishing his books in the 1920s.  His first book was composed of what he called “improvisations.”  Being a busy physician in rural New Jersey (he has said he delivered over 1,000 babies over his lifetime), he did not have much spare time in which to write.  So instead, for one year, he would jot down something in writing each day on little slips of paper, something like a snatch of dialog, or a brief image of mother and daughter, or the scene outside his car on the way to see a patient.  He put all those slips of paper into a shoebox at home, and at the end of a year, he took out all the papers to see what he had.  He organized them into themes – and then he wrote his own reflections on the snippets he’d written down.  This became his first book of poetry.

Let’s take a look at an example to illustrate how this was done:

[By the road to the contagious hospital]
By William Carlos Williams

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines-

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches-

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind- . . .

Here we have in the first three stanzas simple visual observations.  Mottled clouds, broad muddy fields, dried weeds, stuff of bushes and small trees.  The cold pre-spring things he would see driving along the road to the hospital. THEN in Stanza 4, we see Williams’s thoughts and reflections on what he wrote on those little slips of paper (I’ve put them in bold font):  “Lifeless in appearance, sluggish/dazed spring approaches-/They enter the new world naked,/cold,uncertain of all/save that they enter.”  That is, spring slowly comes into the world.  Tiny bare shoots come out of muddy fields, bushes and trees, etc.  Without knowing what’s happening, the shoots arrive.  So we have in this poem:

  • First:  the poet’s observations, what he sees, images of nature and the outdoors.
  • Then:  the poet’s reflections, his thoughts, what he thinks the sights mean to him.

Improvisations.  Williams didn’t have a lot of time each day, but he took the step to jot down something memorable, something he had seen or heard or touched, and he put it away for future use.

If you’re like me, you sometimes wonder, how can I get my writing done when I’ve got so many other things to do?  And more importantly:  how can I write something that matters, if I don’t have a long time to sit down and really write?  Like me, you may find it immensely reassuring to think that if we immerse ourselves in the small images and bits that we see and feel around us, if we pay attention, we can use those images and bits of our lives to make our own improvisations out of those little moments.  And that those improvisations can lead us into writing that can move, inspire, and evoke emotion in our readers.

You may want to try a similar experiment, perhaps for a week jotting down something each day from your daily life.  At the end of a week, spread out what you have written.  Does it suggest something?  Can you create your own poem – or prose piece – from these improvisations and your own thoughts and reflections?  Let’s give it a try!

Happy April!

March 2018 | Poetry Study, and Writing Through Another Character

Ah!  It just turned to spring, didn’t it?  (March 21st)  Does it feel like spring where you are?  Thinking of my writing colleagues across the country and across the world, I’m sitting at my desk imagining what spring is like for them in Phoenix, Los Angeles, New Jersey, India, Australia, Tanzania, and Cambridge, England.  And even though the calendar says it’s spring, this week we had snow.  Big sloppy snow flake packets dropping from the sky to the ground, not sticking, but still – present.  This morning the sun is out, there are sounds of birds in the budded or blooming trees outside, and the grass shimmers green, almost vibrating in the early-spring light.  That kind of light makes you feel like you can do almost anything.  Doesn’t it?

I would love to share this inviting poem from Joy Harjo, “Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit”, courtesy of The Poetry Foundation’s “Poem of the Day” (have I convinced you to subscribe to POTD yet?):

Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit
Joy Harjo

Don’t bother the earth spirit who lives here. She is working on a story. It is the oldest story in the world and it is delicate, changing. If she sees you watching she will invite you in for coffee, give you warm bread, and you will be obligated to stay and listen. But this is no ordinary story. You will have to endure earthquakes, lightning, the deaths of all those you love, the most blinding beauty. It’s a story so compelling you may never want to leave; this is how she traps you. See that stone finger over there? That is the only one who ever escaped.

I love that in this poem Harjo shakes up the “typical” poem form.  She doesn’t use line breaks, she talks to the reader conversationally, but at the same time, the poem goes into compelling and dramatic places.  “If she sees you watching she will invite you in for coffee, give you warm bread, and you will be obligated to stay and listen.”  And then:  “You will have to endure earthquakes, lightning, the deaths of all those you love, the most blinding beauty.  It’s a story so compelling you may never want to leave; this is how she traps you.”  What is it that makes us want both the comfort of warm bread and the stunning sight of blinding beauty?  It is interesting that we, as humans, endure deaths of loved ones AND earthquakes AND beauty.  What do you think?

Happy Spring!

Works-in-Progress

Here is a 101-word story from my “Eleven Stories” writing course!

Marley & Marley, by Theresa Barker

The twins named the gerbils the same name:  Marley.  They saw that movie “Marley” a few years back with the silly yellow labrador retriever named Marley.  They’d fallen in love with the dog in the movie, goofy as he was, and that’s where the name came from.  These were only two small hamsters, but they were golden and they did race around the cage, much as Marley the dog had raced around in that movie.  Their father and I objected to the same-name strategy, protesting, – how would we tell them apart?  But the twins were set on it, so the names stuck.  We had no problem telling them apart a few months later when one of the Marleys had a litter of pups.  Plenty of Marleys now.

– The twins and their hamsters will be very happy.  The parents?  Not so much, perhaps!

Ah, I see in my notes from this story that I wrote this for a different purpose.  For this story I opened a book of short stories and I picked several titles that jumped out at me, then I wrote  my own (brief) story for each title.  This title was from “Marley and Marley” by J. R. Dawson and it appears in the November/December edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science FictionDo you ever try writing from “found words” or sayings that you encounter?

 

Writing Tip – Seeing Work Through Another Character

Have you ever fallen in love with someone else’s writing, but you’re not sure how to study their work or learn from it?  You might give this a try:  pick a story you enjoy or admire, and then rewrite the story from the point of view of a different narrator.  It might be another person in the story, it might even be an inanimate object or an animal.  In this way, you can study the author’s writing – where does this narrator come into the story?  What is important to this narrator vs. the original narrator?  What insights does the new narrator provide, what secrets does it have?  – And as you pore over the original story, picking up clues to your new narrator’s story, the rhythm and the lilt of the author’s original writing can become a part of your thinking, which helps you work new techniques into your own writing.

Let’s take an example, Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”.  Here is an excerpt from the opening:

. . . The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.

“What should we drink?” the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.

“It’s pretty hot,” the man said.

Suppose we wrote a new section from the woman’s point of view.  It might go something like this:

We sat at the little table outside in the shade, though it was too hot even then.  He always wanted to be outdoors.  It was like he was watching for something, some sign.  He didn’t say anything, like usual.  I put my hat on the table.  I said, trying to be nice, “What should we drink?”

He said, “It’s pretty hot.”  He was looking at the white hills across the valley.

Granted, this may not be brilliant text.  But it gives you the idea; we are in the viewpoint of the woman, and as narrator she’s telling us she’s irritated with him, she’s tired but trying to get along.  He seems to be ignoring her, “as usual.”  We’re hearing what’s important to the woman, what she does not tell the man, how she’s feeling in the heat and isolation of the train station.

As an exercise, let’s try narrating from an object’s point of view.  Maybe the white hills?

Down along the valley, in the small adobe train station, the man and woman sat outdoors at a table.  The white hills along the valley of the Ebro had seen eons of human and non-human history.  The station and the train had only come into the valley recently, in a blip of time.  But the hills watched everything:  sky, valley, train station, people.  There was some interest in the goings-on of humans.

Even though this seems unpromising – what could enormous hills have to do with the story of a man and woman waiting for a train? – the exercise could take you into a different frame for your writing.  For instance, the hills could be angry toward the intrusion of humans, the scratching of earth and the disruption of the natural system.  Or they might be philosophical that humans are nothing compared to the long timeline of the hills and valley.  Because the narration of an object (or in this case, landscape) is so unusual, it may lead you into a poetic or lyrical approach that you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.

Next time you run across an intriguing story or piece of literature, stop and think:  what would happen if I rewrote this story using another narrator?  Even if you only write a couple of pages in the new narrator’s voice, having studied the original story and attempted your own version will lead you into new writing and new voices.  Try it!

February 2018 | Change of Location

 

At my desk this morning. About 7:00 when I got up this morning, I heard the smallest sound of raindrops tapping on the roof.  I was delighted.  I know, I know, rain can be dreary and made you feel blue.  But for me, the sound of rain is one of the most pleasant sounds on Earth.  What is is about the tap-tap-tap sound that makes me feel so delighted?  I think it’s the feeling of being enclosed, enveloped, surrounded by a natural curtain of rain.  It’s like being in one of those old-fashioned four-poster beds from the 1800s, those Dickensian beds, where you draw the curtains all ’round (to keep in the heat, I suppose?).  Cozy.  Snuggly.  Hearing the sound of rain is like that for me.

I am enjoying the poem by Margaret Atwood, “February.” It starts like this:

Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat,
a black fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries
to get onto my head. It’s his
way of telling whether or not I’m dead. . . .

What is it about winter that makes us crave comfort food?  Pewter mornings, those are what we get here in Seattle in winter.  Like the cat in Atwood’s poem, my own cat, Pickles, black with green eyes, jumps on the bed every morning, yowling her greeting.  February is the month of Valentines, it’s the month of Groundhog Day, it’s Black History Month, it’s Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday month.  Here’s another poetic take on it, and excerpt from “February,” by Bill Christophersen:

The cold grows colder, even as the days
grow longer, February’s mercury vapor light
buffing but not defrosting the bone-white
ground, crusty and treacherous underfoot.
. . . hope’s a reptile waiting for the sun.

“Hope’s a reptile waiting for the sun.”  Nice line!

If you haven’t already done so, you should consider subscribing to Poetry Foundation’s “Poem of the Day” emails.  I’m a neophyte poet, but just getting exposure to all kinds of poems and poets, noticing what I like and what I’m less moved by, hearing the lyrical and musical and strident and flowing words that come from a poet’s mind, just reading a poem a day has made me a better writer.  Try it!

Works-in-Progress

This month in my “Eleven Stories” writing course we’ve graduated from 55-word stories to 101-word stories; still lots of attempts, still lots of different viewpoints, still a journey.  Here is one story that stood out this month:

Photograph, by Theresa Barker

There was something about the soldier that made me cry.  You don’t think your own son will die so early.  The soldier’s eyes are behind sunglasses, on his head a military helmet made for the desert.  You hear that soldiers, these boys of our hearts, come home from the battlefront broken.  Broken in the mind, broken in their hearts.  What is it that makes us send out young men to war?  What is it that makes them want to go?  There is a primordial sense of belonging in a group of men who go off to war.  But the mothers, we wait.  We hold them in our eyes, and we sing them to sleep at night from afar.

Books I’m reading

Phoenix DanceA friend recommended The Phoenix Dance, by Dia Calhoun.  In this young adult fantasy novel, the heroine is an apprentice shoemaker who wants to become the Royal Shoemaker for the twelve dancing princesses of the kingdom.  It’s an updated take on the fairy tale, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” in which a king has twelve beautiful daughters who mysteriously dance holes in their shoes every night.  The most intriguing aspect of this book is that the heroine, called Phoenix Dance, has an affliction, bipolar disorder, and the author describes how Phoenix experiences and struggles with this disorder, eventually saving the day and defeating the enchantment of the princesses.

Writing Tip – Go Somewhere New!

Sometimes I find it hard to sit down and write, actually write, in my home office.  Everything seems dull at my desk at times.  Yesterday I had to be downtown for an appointment, and I had about 20 minutes of time before the appointment started.  I stopped into a little tea-and-coffee place (confession:  they specialize in custom-made cupcakes and macarons) called The Yellow Leaf.  I was good – only bought a cup of loose-leaf English Breakfast black tea and a small macaron cookie – and when I sat down at one of their tiny tables (they are very small inside), suddenly I felt like writing.  I wrote two very short flash fictions, no more than exercises, but still, I liked them when I got done, and when I got up to leave a few minutes later I felt delighted and refreshed.

So if sometimes you feel like I do, ugh, sitting at my desk seems so boring! – consider going out, stopping into a place that feels right and cozy and comfortable, and pull out your pad and pen and write.  – It may be a coffee house, but it might also be a park bench, a diner, a bar (!), or a neighbor’s front porch.  Enjoy!

January 2018 | Taking A New Perspective

Into the Sky

Sketch by Theresa Barker.

I’m sitting at my dining room table this Thursday morning.  I sometimes like to write here, away from my desk where I can spread out, and not only that, but the view out the window is onto our lovely side yard with native plants, rhododendrons, sword ferns and Oregon Grape, a Japanese blood maple tree and Rose of Sharon tree (both bare this time of year).  The weather has been chilly, for us, in the low 40s most days.  Brr!  Even with these cool temperatures, the Japanese flowering cherry trees are starting to put out their pale pink blooms, unbelievably.  A whisper that spring is on its way already.

The other day I read a brief lament by the month of January, saying how it is a month that is misunderstood and underestimated, that “everyone loves April” in all those poems written about that month, and that no one gives January credit for being the first month of the year, for being a strong month with 31 days in it, asking us to think of how all that snow and ice (in northern climes) gives you ice skating and other fun outdoor activities.  I don’t know about you, but I love January!  It’s a month for new starts, it’s a peaceful month after the holidays, and in particular, January 31st is one of my favorite days of the year.  I’m not sure why, but it just seems like a lovely date, like the period at the end of an enjoyable sentence in a wonderful book.

Works-in-Progress

This month I’ve been writing a series of stories that are only 55 words long, through the “Eleven Stories”project offered by Kahini retreats.  Wow.  Fifty-five words is very short.  Lots of attempts, lots of different viewpoints, it’s been a journey.  Here is one of my favorites:

Visitor, by Theresa Barker

Can you see my eyes?  I trot through your suburban yard of green grass in my shaggy yellow coat, disguised.  You think I am a dog; no.  The word is coyote.  I’m almost not here.  The sharp up-points of my tufted fur belies a dog’s pelt.  I only hunt food for my young ones. Can you see my eyes?

This month I’m working on a story about a sentient AI being, like the iPhone Siri or Echo’s Alexa, a being who is attempting to understand her role in the Creator’s world and how she might escape his control.  And I’m continuing my “Little Book of Lies” project.

Good News

I have two microfiction stories out this week in the UK’s Grievous Angel.  Both stories are about monsters who live in – or travel through – graffiti walls.  Take a look!

My collaborator Anne Jailene Aguilar, a South African blogger and writer, and I are proud to announce our anthology of re-told Cinderella tales, Cinderella Reimagined, is now available on Amazon Books!  This anthology is a compilation of fifteen new stories drawn from the Cinderella fairy tale from blogger-writers all over the globe.  You can read two of my stories and two of Anne’s stories among them.  Anne and I created this project last year, inviting bloggers from near and far to contribute stories.  We selected the best among them, edited them into an anthology, and we’re excited to share it with you.  More information here.

Writing Tip – Taking A New Perspective

Sketch by Theresa Barker.

Do you ever find that something you are searching for a story idea?  You’re wracking your brains, but you can’t seem to come up with anything to start writing about.  Here’s a an idea that I’ve been trying this month with promising results.

Take another story, for example, The Enormous Radio, by John Cheever (originally published in The New Yorker on the 1940s).  Go ahead and read it, I’ll wait!  Okay, you’re back?  Now, think about rewriting the story from a new perspective.  What if you wrote the same story, but this time narrated by the husband?  Or the Sweeneys’ nurse?  Or – the radio?  That’s what I did; I wrote a new draft from the radio’s point of view.  While it’s largely the same plot, I found a really interesting ending, in which the main characters of the original story, Jim and Irene Westcott, become addicted to the stories of the neighbors around them broadcast through the radio.  So addicted they start turning in their neighbors for being communist sympathizers, informers, etc., never going out to the theater or concerts, while at the same time turning a blind eye to social injustice like domestic violence and bigotry on their own block.  Hmmm.

A side note, if you try this exercise, I have it on good authority you can consider publishing the story as long as you give credit to the original story, and as long as your new story is original enough to be distinct from the author’s version.  Your story will form part of the conversation begun by the first story’s publication.

Thanks for reading, and happy writing!

p.s.  The sketch above is of a tea flower.  Did you ever think they were that complicated?  Like writing…!

December 2017 | Creativity with “Poem of the Day”

Sketch by Theresa Barker.

I’m sitting at my desk this Monday morning. We had fog this morning and it gave a mythical look to the world outside, a spooky feeling, as though anything could come out of the mist – elves, ogres, witches . . . or just the coyotes that live in the ravine behind my house. This morning I feel like the bird I sketched above, standing on a rock, hunkered down against the wind.

Works-in-Progress

Sketch by Theresa Barker.

I’m working on flash fiction, some realistic and some science fiction/fantasy. “Medusa,” a retelling of the Greek myth in modern-day, “Arctic Refuge,” a near-future tale of a parent too wrapped up in virtual reality visits to his ancestors’ homeland to see his daughter’s need for face-to-face connection, and “Before the Storm,” a tense drama of two sisters striving to reconnect after a mother’s illness in spite of, and because of, their shared childhood bonds.

And, I’m learning to sketch! =^.^=

Good News

Sketch by Theresa Barker.

Three of my flash fiction stories have appeared this year, two in UK Grievous Angel and one in Every Day Fiction.

Our monthly reading series in Seattle, Two Hour Transport,  found a new home at Ada’s Technical Books in November.  😀

 

Writing Tip – Poem of the Day

Sketch by Theresa Barker.

Do you ever feel stuck when you want to start writing?  Consider subscribing to a “poem of the day” from a poetry organization.  I get daily poems from The Poetry Foundation and from poets.org (Academy of American Poets) delivered to my in-box.  When I want to start a new piece of writing, I pull up that day’s poem-of-the-day, find a phrase or line that intrigues me, and start writing.  Bonus:  set a timer for 10 minutes and write as much as possible.  When the timer rings, go back and pull up a new poem, find a good line, and continue your writing.  The rhythm of the poem, the intensity of emotion in its content, the richness of its language will all infuse your writing newly and take you in unexpected directions!

Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful holiday season!  *<<<-   (holiday tree?)

Sept. 2017 | Eleven keys to being more creative

by Theresa J. Barker

Sketch by Theresa Barker

Are you looking to be more creative?  I know that I’m always searching for new ideas or new ways of thinking that will enrich my creativity.  This is a list I wrote last year.  I would love to hear your thoughts!

Always be as true as you can be.  Even if it is not quite as true as it will be next month, next year.

Don’t be afraid of imagination.  It will take you places only you thought of, but that other people will wish to go, too.

It’s okay if you can’t think of what to create next.  Eventually you will.

It’s never trivial to do exercises.  They are often more important than Serious Projects.

Breathe.

Seek out fellow creators to hold the space for creating.  But don’t waste time with unpleasant, nasty, or mean people.

Try not to obsess.  It will work out, one way or another.

Don’t be afraid to give time to your work.  Even if it seems like play.  (Especially so.)

You can always learn from coaching another.  Also from studying the work of another, even if they are famous, dead, unknown, or just around the corner.

There is trying too hard.  Keep in mind that it often comes to you when you let go but still remain engaged.

Design is magical.  So is creation.  So are you.

Fiction: Eve’s Tale

by Theresa J. Barker

Author’s note:  This story was inspired by Ursula Le Guin’s story in the New Yorker, “She Unnames Them,” in which Eve leaves Adam by giving him back her name.

Eve’s Tale

The interviewer sat across the desk, shuffling papers. “So, you left your last position because . . .”

Eve shifted in her chair. “Let’s just say it didn’t work out.”

He looked at her dubiously.

She shrugged. “The management and I didn’t get along.”

“I see. References?”

“Uh … not exactly.”

He jotted notes on the yellow pad in front of him.

“Previous experience?”

“I’ve done a lot of housesitting,” she said, leaning forward. “Been a caretaker all my life.”

He jotted more notes. “Experience with animals?”

“Yup. Tons.”

“Oh?” He looked skeptical. “Dogs? Cats?”

She took a deep breath. “Dogs, cats – yeah. Horses, pigs, cows, chickens, ducks. Yaks. Birds, parrots, cockatiels – you know – all those exotic breeds.”

He was scribbling notes furiously. She chuckled to herself.

“. . . spiders, gnats, mosquitoes,” she went on. “. . . termites, ants, bats, owls eagles – let’s see, seals dolphins, whales . . .”

He put down his pen. “Really.”

She grinned. “Oh, yeah.”

“Whales?”

“Some of my best friends, in fact.” She relished his look of disbelief. “They tell the best stories.”

“Uh huh.” He was leaning back now, arms crossed.

She cocked her head thoughtfully. “I think it’s because they live such a long time. You know, over a hundred years. And talk about family. Aunts, grandmothers, cousins, nieces, grand-nieces, all over the place. “

“And do they move!” She flung out an arm. “Way down south in the winter, up north in the summer. They see most of the planet.”

“Well.” He leaned forward, picked up the papers, glanced through them, looking down. “I think we have everything we need.”

“So do I get the job?”

“We’ll be in touch.”

On the way out, she thought about the interviewer for a moment. She knew he didn’t believe her. They never did. Without a past, without references, it was hard to get anywhere in this town.

But she was a woman who made her own future. She was a woman who beat the odds, bested a serpent, and got kicked out of the Garden of Eden by the deity, after all. She was a part of the world. She was the world.

She did have one thing on her side. Walking down the sidewalk toward the bus stop, she sent a message to the mosquitoes. A little surprise for the interviewer when he arrived at his office tomorrow morning.