Category Archives: Essays

Blog Party: Lesley’s post

For those who have no idea what “Blog Party” refers to, I encourage you to read this post to see what it’s all about. 

It’s glorious spring in my neck of the woods, and the woods I walk my dogs in is bursting with all shades of green: emerald, jade, sea-foam, M&M, spearmint. And these greens come in all shapes and sizes, from mayapple to fern to clover to rambling rose to cottonwood saplings. Each different, each thicker in some parts of the woods than others: the mayapples tend to cluster where sunlight makes its way through the thickening canopy; the ferns seem to prefer darker slopes; the saplings dot the areas where an older tree has fallen—they need the light that’s available to them in those gaps.

So many greens! So many shapes!

So many greens!                   So many forms!

And so it is with the forms that our stories may take: just as the majority of the plants in the woods are green, so many of our stories are made of words, words of all types: sacred, profane, Germanic, Latinate. And the form these stories take also varies: spoken word, poetry, creative nonfiction, drama, short story, novel.

I have been banging my head against the proverbial wall in regards to form for my writing: short stories are encouraged in the MFA program, I believe because getting a short story to “work” is a practice that can be applied to longer (and shorter) pieces of prose. But I’m only human, and I’ve worked with three- or five-act structure for years; I know Aristotle’s incline intimately, and Freytag’s triangle is my good friend. It’s like being in love with ranunculus or daisies and not noticing hyacinth and coral bells, and there’s nothing wrong with having a preference, for loving what we love.

For story structure, my love has been to include a fair amount of backstory. Last semester, while I floundered with a short story, my advisor suggested I get rid of all backstory and revise the story entirely in one scene. What?! No no no no my writer self hollered, I need backstory! At least a little bit!

I was wrong. Completely, totally, entirely wrong. When I cut out the backstory bits (carefully saving them in another file, because, well, because) the characters did and said everything necessary for the story in the present moment of the story. And in fact, once they were unencumbered by the backstory, they soared up and out and behaved in some startlingly interesting ways—the story blossomed.

Oh.

There are a gazillion ways to structure every piece of writing. OK, maybe not a gazillion. But more than three. How to become familiar with more than the major three? First learn the basics: Aristotle’s incline, Freytag’s triangle. There are all kinds of resources for this: Deepening Fiction by Sarah Stone & Ron Nyren. Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway. The Practice of Creative Writing by Heather Sellers. In Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, page 19 has a wonderful jump-start process for an essay. Also Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist does a terrific job both teaching structure and providing the beginning writer with the scaffolding to complete the draft of a novel. And while learning, or reminding yourself, of the basics, read like mad. Take stories apart. Re-type them. It’s amazing how a writer’s process is revealed by simply re-typing their story. I’m doing it today with a chapter of Renata Adler’s Speedboat.

Because even if we love only some of the greens the world has to offer, our stories may demand that we expand our aesthetics. Writers are here to serve the stories that come to us, not cram them into the little boxes we’re familiar with.

Here’s to spring’s wild greeny excesses, its bounty of difference.

May your stories find their shape.

 

Blog Party: Vienna

For those who have no idea what “Blog Party” refers to, I encourage you to read this post to see what it’s all about. 

This guest post is by Vienna. To remind you of who she is, here’s her brief blog bio excerpted from the original introductory post to our Blog Party:

blog party viennaVienna: Hi! I began my blog, Vienna writes, in the summer of 2014 and blogged on an infrequent basis until very recently. This year, in the last week of March, I decided it was time for me to blog again simply because I wanted to get back in the habit of writing. My blog is an exploration of reclaiming my voice as a writer, and I have committed myself to one blog post every day. It includes posts of my thoughts, memories, and inspirations that are slightly longer than a drabble. Feel free to come along for the ride, the ultimate destination of which I have no idea.

 

Our Body, Our Planet

Our country is home to millions of people, the majority of whom are overweight and obese. Fast food is everyday while slow food is a rarer luxury. People, overweight or not, feed themselves at a dangerous pace, looking at their screens and, at the same time, going through the motion of shoveling food in their mouths without consequence. The body is a car to get them from Point A to Point B. A pair of glasses to see through. Nothing but a mechanical shell to get what we want.

Who knows what we’re trying to feed? Our bodies? Our sense of comfort and convenience? Our numbness? Our spiritual emptiness?

Our planet is home to millions of other living species and organisms. Forests, fish, birds, and livestock. This blue-green orb, which offers up its riches without fail, suffers on account of the abuse inflicted upon it by humans.

Why would beings that mistreat and misunderstand our bodies do any better by the Earth?

 

Blog Party!

Let’s Get This [Blog] Party Started!

Hi, it’s us. We know, we know. You don’t know us. Not the collective us, that is. We are Vienna, Lesley, Mariela, Zach, and Shannon…five bloggers coming together for the month of May to cross-promote each other’s work, and hopefully elevate our own work in the process.

We decided to call our month-long endeavor Blog Party, like a block party. If you are a podcast listener, you may be familiar with a similar endeavor by that platform called #TryPod during March. We were inspired.

So, here we are. Just the five of us. We all have very different blogs and very different audiences.

As there are five Mondays in the month, we will take turns posting on each other’s blogs, and therefore, you will get a chance to see each of our works. If you find you like one of these new blogs, please consider subscribing.

Here’s a little more about each of us and our blogs…

blog party viennaVienna: Hi! I began my blog, Vienna writes, in the summer of 2014 and blogged on an infrequent basis until very recently. This year, in the last week of March, I decided it was time for me to blog again simply because I wanted to get back in the habit of writing. My blog is an exploration of reclaiming my voice as a writer, and I have committed myself to one blog post every day. It includes posts of my thoughts, memories, and inspirations that are slightly longer than a drabble. Feel free to come along for the ride, the ultimate destination of which I have no idea.

Photo on 6-6-16 at 3.55 PM (1)Lesley: I’m a lifelong fiction writer who’s half-way through a low-residency MFA at Warren Wilson College. I began my blog in 2011, when my sons were pre-teens–its focus was on writing amidst the chaos of family life. My (infrequent) posts have of late focused on writing craft and engaging the world through writing. You can read my blog, the Art of Practice, here.

12819474_10110279046440424_7143565581058908509_oMariela: I have a passion for linguistics, culture and travel. Back in 2013, I started a blog to share my personal journey’s experiences with my family and friends, called El periplo de Mariela (or Mariela’s Journey). Although the blog’s name was in Spanish, posts were 99% in English. For the first couple of  years I wrote with certain frequency but then life took over and I eventually stopped. Fast forward to April 2017 and, after a 1-year hiatus from writing, I’m launching Mar Explora. For now, its main feature is still the blog but this site will be an ever-evolving project..I’m excited to see what path it’ll take me!

Zachary Steele BWZach: Hello, I guess. Is that right? I’ve never been good at social … things. I’m a writer of fiction, currently delving into Middle Grade fantasy, where the kid in me is quite happy, thank you. For the most part, I’ve morphed my blog into a collection of posts about all the truly bad choices I’ve made in life. I figure others should be able to laugh at me as much I do. So, if you’re up for feeling better about your choices, check out I Have a Wrong Way to Go, drop a comment, talk about operatic mice, share stories, or, you know, stuff.

DSC_2205Shannon:  Greetings! I’m a storyteller and story coach living in Atlanta, GA. I’ve been blogging since 2006. My current blog is embedded in my website. I tend to write irregular reflections on storytelling, projects, and my journey. My subscribers are almost entirely a part of my personal network, so I’d love to have a chance to grow beyond the people who just want to make sure I don’t starve. My blog can be found here.

So, look for the first edition from Vienna to be coming out on all our blogs next Monday. We look forward to getting to know you, getting to know each other, and helping you get to know us all. It’s a lot like mingling at a party, don’t you think?

Cheers,

Us

Luck and Greed

I’ve been nose to the cliched grindstone since February, working on the required 30+ page essay for my MFA. I ran the gamut of emotion about the essay itself (hated it. feared it. dismissed it. cowered before it. fell in love with it.). And I learned more than I realized I hadn’t known, a terrific lesson in both humility and craft.

Humility because: I’m fifty. I’ve been reading and writing since I was four. Not intensely, or with a clear purpose, necessarily, but steadily. I’ve read lots of books about craft. I’ve read a lot of fiction. Some poetry. I’m not un-schooled, I’m not stupid, and I’m not afraid of pain: I birthed one of my children without painkillers and have managed to parent the second one without pharmaceutical assistance. Yet.

All that said, I had no idea what it was like to dedicate myself to my writing with the intensity that this essay demanded. I’ve been getting along just fine in my low-res MFA by devoting three to four hours per day, on average, to meeting its requirements–writing and reading and annotating.

But the essay: my first two efforts, totaling almost sixty pages of writing, were not coherent. There was no thesis. It was muddled. I was muddled. I could not figure out what to do differently: I was working as hard as I had my first two semesters. What the what?

Essay drafting bits and pieces

Essay drafting bits and pieces

The essay’s deadline began to loom, sounding like Darth Vader, waking me up at three AM but not letting me fall sleep before midnight.

So I got greedy. I got greedy about my time. I quit cooking entirely, didn’t scrub the toilets, allowed the dust and dog hair to gather into balls the size of watermelons. I said no to volunteer requests, no to the weeds in the backyard, no to a potential client.

I went to my favorite coffeeshop and I took the table in the back and I sat and I wrote for six to eight hours a day. I bought multiple cups of coffee and various snacks to fuel me, but what I really did was get very very very greedy about my time.

I know, I know: I am, after all, doing a low-residency MFA: aren’t I already greedy? But this is the first time I placed my need for writing time above everything else. Everything. I disassembled the words I had already written and I spent two days just thinking about the “thesis” in my introduction. And then I rewrote the introduction and then I revised it four more times, reading it aloud each time. (Yes, I looked a little crazy at that back table. I didn’t care.) Then I went fishing in my first two drafts for the parts that addressed my now-coherent thesis, and roughed in what was missing. And then I set out to fall in love with each section, and then each sentence in each section and then each word. That takes a ton of time.

Is my essay a work of art? No. Do I love it? Yes. Did I learn a ton of writerly craft stuff? Yes. All the pedagogical reasons to write an essay were definitely met.

And maybe learning how to be greedy about time is an implicit pedagogical goal, too. Because here’s the thing: having spent six to eight hours a day on my writing, I want more days like that. I’m not gonna get them with the frequency that I forced to meet the deadline, but now that I know what I can do when I get greedy with my time, I want more time. I have spent a half-century putting my writing below all the other sh*t that fills our lives. Statistically speaking, I don’t get another fifty years. And I can tell already that I’m slower than I was a decade ago.

So, yeah, I’m greedy. Yeah, I’m privileged to be able to have this time. But what good comes of my guilt, my angst, my hand-wringing, my volunteering for activities I resent for taking me away from writing desk? How does the suffering of the world abate when I turn away from what brings me to life?

I’m lucky this lifetime. Thank you, dumb luck. And yes, I’ll take all I can get.

I know the world is on fire. But it’s also an “inhabited garden.”

 

There’s been a group of dedicated volunteers collaborating with my town for at least twenty years, to develop an interconnected trail system. Part of the funding comes from “selling” benches that are placed along the trail–sponsors may attach a plaque in memory or honor of someone. Here’s one:

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When I passed by this bench on my walk last week, I was kerfufflating about a newspaper article that described the dishevelment of our government. I was planning when to make my phone calls and where to make my donations.

Then Rosie the dog began snuffling around the edges of the bench and I thought, what the hell, I have five minutes. I sat down.

I let the weight of my body be held by the bench, the bench that a worker’s hands held steady while settling it into the ground, the bench that held the words of long-gone Goethe, the bench that held a reminder of a mother’s vision of the world, and that held her children’s memories of her.

So much has gone before me, so much is alongside me, so much will come after me.

It was good to be held while I rested in the expansiveness of the so-much-ness of us all.

I took a deep breath. It smelled like rain and crisp wild onions. It smelled like enough.

And then these words floated into my mind, given to us by Alice Walker (and shared most recently with me by Suzi Banks Baum during one of her terrific online Powder Keg Writing workshops)

“And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see – or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.”

The spirits, alive and dead, who make ours an inhabited garden are not served by my despair, by my angst, by my kerfufflating.

Eleanor Wilner, at this year’s AWP conference noted that writers, particularly poets, are “writing to break out of constricted thought–out of the gated white community of minds.”  She stated that writing changes the world because the world we live in, lives in us; thus, by altering the world in an internal creative act, the writer also shifts the external world she lives in.

Rosie finished her sniffing and looked up at me: ready?

I was.

May it be so.

 

 

The metaphor that writing about metaphors has uncovered for me . . . .

The terrific folks at The Write Practice have put up the final post in my three-post series about similes and metaphors. These were great fun to write, and I’m tickled to share them with TWP’s readers.

Most interesting to me is that explaining metaphor for an audience that ranges from novice to advanced required me to re-ground myself in the basics. Like, what is a dictionary definition of metaphor? And will that make any sense to those who are embarking on their writing journey?

It’s easy to forget the good, the bad and the ugly of the early days of learning something–parenting, music-making, knitting, writing. And it’s impossible to fully return to not-knowing, once we’ve learned something.

But having learned something, I believe it is our responsibility to share it. Those who take the time to remember their beginning steps and who make sense of those steps give everyone a gift–a gift of wisdom, of strategy, of beauty, of possibility.

img_3872These days, as I aim to figure out how to manifest my ideal of “democratic citizen,” I’ve been leaning on the wisdom of those leaders and activists and students of history who wrote down their stories. My favorite tome at the moment is The Impossible Will Take a Little While, edited by Paul Rogat Loeb

So pick up your pen and write!; we want to witness your journey, learn from your regrets, sustain and extend your advances.

May it be so.

Focus: Writing and Engaging

Last Friday, I finished my MFA semester work and emerged blinking like a teenager at noon into the post-election world.* During those days of deep writing, I have again had the chance to guest post at The Write Practice–this time about metaphors–and the estimable Donna Thompson has featured my colleague Jenny Zia and me on her Women Influencing the Arts blog.

Taking the time to engage with the broader writing community has upped my focus on time management. Two months ago I promised myself I’d experiment with craft learning in the evenings, followed by a morning practice of that craft. I was looking at complex-compound sentences at the time. And I thought I’d experiment for about a month and then share what I found.

Noting the irony inherent in claiming to have focused on time management but not having met a self-imposed deadline, here’s what I found: I can write after three in the afternoon. In fact, some days I generate powerful first-draft material in the afternoon. But learning writing craft before I go to bed? Not so much. Maybe this is because I exhaust my focus muscle during a day of writing, or because my metabolism prefers dawn to night at this point in my life. But what I found is that evenings are a great time for me to catch up on reading my Writer’s Chronicle and Poets & Writers and the interviews in The Paris Review. In fact, sometimes the ideas I find in those sources jump-start my next-day’s free write. Plus: I don’t spend precious daytime focus hours reading about writing.

* Re: the election, from my FB reply to a friend: I walked in the woods and cried a little and when I looked up, a leaf was floating slowly slowly slowly down down down in that stop start and swirl way that leaves do and then . . . it landed in the uppermost branches of a sapling; it did not fall to the forest floor. And I thought: we will be held through this. Blessed be. Blessed unrest. Blessed be the peacemakers.

Have you played around with your writing life schedule? I’d love to hear what you’ve done, and how it worked — I’m especially curious to know if things have shifted for you at different life stages. Let me know in the comments section below.