Tag Archives: writing

Craft Matters: Timing is everything. Or is it?

We whirl through our days amidst commitments internally- and externally-imposed; some weeks we have to squeeze in our writing while waiting for the doctor, the oil change, the vet and yes that is my upcoming week.

But today I read this terrific post by Noa Kageyama, whose equally terrific blog, The Bulletproof Musician, frequently addresses matters of effective practice and discipline that applies to all of us aiming for artistry. This one looks at a study that examined how efficient learning is when it’s done at night rather than in the morning.

Don’t mess with my morning mojo, my writing muse whispered. You can’t write after three in the afternoon! I will not watch the sunset with you! 

No matter how gorgeous the sunset, my muse thinks evenings are Not a Good Time to Write. I'm going to see if she's right.

No matter how gorgeous the sunset, my muse thinks evenings are Not a Good Time to Write. Is she right?

 But the *evidence* shows that people learn and remember their learning more efficiently and effectively if they tackle it in the evening, go to bed, and then practice again in the morning. Huh. Is my muse really so special that she will be exempt from evidence-based research? Actually, is this really about my muse, that elusive spark of inspiration, or is this about the simple learning and practicing of craft?

I think it’s the latter. If I want to get the compound-complex sentence down cold (my current craft focus, inspired by David Foster Wallace’s jaw-dropping application of basic grammatical tenets), I need to learn its form and practice it.

Although I’d like to think I’m very special, I suspect that I’m no more special than anyone else when it comes to my grey matter. So based on Kageyama’s post, I am going to ignore my muse and set up some evening craft reading-learning-practicing exercise sessions for myself, followed by next-morning follow-up craft reading-learning-practicing exercise sessions.

I’ll let you know how it goes in about a month–and if you have any experiences with how you’ve learned specific writing craft, tell us all about it in comments below!

Writing Fail . . .

I’m playing with video because, y’know, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth at least a couple thousand. Includes terrific words on forgiveness by poet David Whyte.

The Lyric Book is PUBLISHED!, and why it’s complicated …

The picture is worth a thousand words!

The picture is worth a thousand words!

The Lyric Theatre in downtown Blacksburg has been in its current location since 1930. Its story is now available in a book that I helped write, The Lyric Theatre: the Heart of Blacksburg.

It’s beautiful to look at and lovely to hold because the designer, Christina O’Connor, is crazy good at what she does. It’s interesting because Su Clauson-Wicker and Cheryl Wood Ruggiero are terrific interviewers and researchers and writers and copy-editors. And folks have said it reads well because I did much of the writing. This is thrilling!

That said, I had an interesting conversation with a friend yesterday who asked me: are you comfortable receiving praise for this book? My answer: it’s complicated.

I love it when people love something I’ve written. But I often feel like the story has come to me; it’s not “mine” — it’s ours. I wrote it down. The story is mine only insofar as I am responsible for listening closely to what I hear and discerning the story. I am responsible for paying attention, for discipline and diligence, for re-writing for clarity and power, and for finding a home for stories. But once I’m done writing, it’s not mine. It’s ours. I happen to be the writer.

It also happens that this book was a pleasure to serve as a writer. Enjoy it! The story it tells belongs to all of us.

And may you have the chance to listen for, and share, your stories as well.

If you’d like to buy a copy of the book, you can do so at the YMCA Craft Fair November 13-15 (I’ll be there some of the time if you want a personalized copy!). It’s also available in downtown Blacksburg at the Alexander Black House, the Artful Lawyer Gallery, the Lyric Theatre, the Montgomery Museum, and Uncommonly Gifted.

Fleek, fleck, whatever; I got it wrong.

The young-to-me man ringing up my lunch order said, “That tomato soup is on point. Or as the young would say, on fleek.” (Spelled like it sounds.)

“On what?” I asked, and added, “You look like the younger generation to me.”

“No,” he said, “I was born in ’90 so I’m not the younger generation. And yeah, they say on fleek. It’s the same as saying on point.” (Which I think is really en pointe, the french term for ballet dancers when they are on their tippy-toes.)

“But why? What’s the logic of that? Where’s it from?”

He shrugged. “Kids today.”

Indeed. After supper I asked the 14 y.o., “What does on FLECK mean?”

“Oh my god mom, do you mean on fleek?”

“Yeah, that’s it. On fleek. What the heck is that?”

He doubled over, in shame or wordless laughter, I couldn’t tell. “Just don’t ever say that again, mom.” And then he hollered up the stairs to his older brother, “Guess what mom just got wrong!”

I am so of the older generation now. I like being of the older generation — I don’t worry about my looks or whether someone else likes me, etcetera. There’s a lot of freedom in middle age. And true to the stereotype of middle-aged mom, I despair about the younger generation some of the time. I’m baffled by on fleek. My hubby and I lament the screens that engage our children although in my reflective moments I think that perhaps slaughtering forests of trees for paper on which to print essays and books isn’t all that great … and how ironic that plenty of those essays and books are about how the next generation doesn’t get it because they’re on their devices all the time … and those kids in my community who went to school in t-shirts bearing the confederate flag don’t seem to have ever read a history book! How is it that they don’t grasp the complexity and nuance of how that symbol affects their fellow community members? Kids today.

Kids today! Some thing never change. And as a writer I have been struggling with whether and how to enter the increasingly-heated political frays occurring all over the place, not least in my own confederate-flag-divided community.

Adam Zagajewski 2014 in Stockholm

photo of Adam Zagajewski 2014 in Stockholm by Frankie Fouganthin — from WikiCommons

I found guidance in Susan Sontag‘s essay, “The Wisdom Project,” which centers on an extended exploration of the book Another Beauty by Adam Zagaejewski, a Polish writer:

Life, when not a school for heartlessness, is an education in sympathy. The sum of stories reminds us that in a life of a certain length and spiritual seriousness, change — sometimes not for the worse — is just as real as death.

All writing is a form of remembering. …

That memories are recovered — that is, that the suppressed truths do reemerge — is the basis of whatever hope one can have for justice and a modicum of sanity in the ongoing life of communities. …

That every generation fears, misunderstands, and condescends to its successor — this, too, is a function of the equivalence of history and memory (history being what it is agreed on, collectively, to remember). Each generation has distinctive memories, and the elapsing of time, which brings with it a steady accumulation of loss, confers on those memories a normativeness which cannot possibly be honored by the young, who are busy compiling their memories, their benchmarks. … The rule seems to be: each generation looks upon its successor generation as barbarians.

Sontag goes on to point out that

…history should never be thought of with a capital H. The governing sense of Zagajewski’s memory-work is his awareness of having lived through several historical periods, in the course of which things eventually got better. Modestly, imperfectly–not utopianly–better. … Lesson: evil is not immutable. The reality is, everyone outlives an old self, often more than one, in the course of a reasonably long life.

I don’t agree with those who claim the confederate flag is “just” a symbol of their heritage: such a statement places the mask of simplicity over our uniquely complex American heritage of–and present-day schizophrenia about–slavery.  I don’t think on fleek makes a damn bit of sense. And give me a book made from dead trees instead of an e-reader, please.

But I do agree with Sontag and Zagajewski’s words about hope — I have outlived several of my old selves. I am hopeful that our current political and personal experiences will prove to be an education in sympathy. And that writers, myself included, will contribute to our collective memory, our collective story. To our modest, imperfect betterment.

May it be so.

Rome is burning.

Warning: a bit of a rant follows.

Do you have a Big Kroger Store in your neighborhood yet? These massive 100K+ square foot stores boast about the hundreds of thousands of items they contain. They post their mission statements, which invariably refer to “providing a pleasant shopping experience.” They forget they are a grocery store. People come for food. If customers need an alphabetized index to find eggs and milk, the store is too big.  But wait! On aforementioned index in the last Big Kroger’s I visited (in Lexington, KY), milk and eggs aren’t listed. There’s “dairy” and that area of the store has both milk and eggs. Yet last I checked an egg is essentially an unfertilized embryo and not, uh, dairy. These stores are like a Work of Art that requires an interpretative talk. Does it touch my heart? Yes? Then it’s Art. No? Then it’s an academic pursuit. Can I find what I need for supper in 5 minutes or less? Yes? Then it’s a grocery store. No? Then it’s another reason to re-up my membership at the human-scale co-op. I don’t want to study an index when I go grocery shopping. I want to load my cart with the necessities* and get the hell out of there as fast as possible.

Not on this board: Eggs. Milk. Flour.

Not listed on this grocery-store index: Eggs. Milk.

If the store is so large as to require a PhD in index-reading, the employees need to be paid Top Dollar so they can provide topnotch directions to the confused shoppers. Do not confuse topnotch direction-giving employees with topnotch costumed employees: putting an employee in a rabbit outfit and having them drive around the store in a golf cart decorated as an Easter basket, the day before Easter, saying hullo to the confused shoppers, is not topnotch customer service.  It’s an attempt to distract shoppers from their mounting frustration at having to walk a mile for bread and milk (located at opposite ends of the store). I put this type of distraction alongside the gorgeously designed book covers that hide their texts’ sloppy writing, worse editing, and sagging plots.

Really?

Really?

However, thousands of badly-written, badly-edited gorgeous-cover books are published every year, and huge Kroger’s are popping up in cities across the mid-south region, so somebody’s buying. (“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”) Depending on my mood on a given day, I experience our apparent willingness to be distracted by rabbit-dressed employees and glossy covers as symbolic, as ironic, as disheartening, as hilarious. On my worst days, I believe we are burning like Rome burned, and fiddling around on our screens like Nero fiddled on his violin.

Silver lining: there is a novel or twenty to be had by observing the fuel of our flames.

And so my wish for you, dear writer friend, is that the sublimely ridiculous may inspire you today.

* condoms used to be a necessity for me, but (thankfully) Engineer Hubby and I have eliminated the possibility of more kids. That said, part of the reason, IMO, that we are burning is that there are, simply, too many of us. We suffer from our species’ reproductive success. And *that* said, wouldn’t it make sense for us to support, nay, encourage!, those among us who don’t want kids?

Making it difficult to not contribute to the problem of overpopulation. Again, really?

Making it difficult to avoid contributing to the problem of overpopulation. Again, really?

But at this Kroger’s the condoms are LOCKED UP like they’re ammunition or prescription drugs. Again, really? If I were running the store, I would not only leave these unlocked, I’d place them beside the door. Perhaps with a little sign: “Donations accepted but not required.” Really. Because by the time shoppers get home from hiking through this store, they’re gonna need a foot rub from their partners, and that can lead to, y’know, mashing the potatoes … ah! If only tubers were included on the index.

Form!

Today my thoughts about writing are inspired by a stranger, a woman I see during weightlifting classes, usually Sunday afternoon, sometimes Wednesday mornings. She’s about my age — I’ve seen her in these classes for all the 15+ years I’ve been going — and we’re both starting look our half-centuries-old, though she far less than I. In fact, if you don’t look too closely at her face or her softening tummy, you’d take her for ten years younger that our late forties.

Weensy weights

Weensy weights

The nearer I get to fifty the more I find correct form to be critical to my day-after-the-gym feeling, aka good ache or ohgodIthinkI’mbroken. Form like not rounding my back during a dead-lift, not pulling from the shoulder for a bicep curl, not pushing my knees beyond my ankles for the squats. In the choreographed classes I favor, the teachers run us through the moves at a variety of tempos, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes a combination. For me, the coveted burn inevitably happens on the slow moves. Pushing weight up and down for eight slow counts requires more of my muscles than a one-two, up-down motion. I load my bar with only 12-15 pounds for squats, less for everything else. This is a puny amount of weight.

My fellow weightlifter, however, piles on triple those pounds.  She follows neither the instructors’ directions about form, nor their tempo. Her arms flare out during overhead triceps kickbacks, her back is the St. Louis arch when she dead-lifts, and during squats her knees overshoot her ankles by a good six inches. Until this past week, I hadn’t seen her follow the tempo; regardless of what the teacher says, she does the move in two counts, up-down, and then stands waiting for any remaining beats.

But Sunday’s instructor, himself a middle-aged fella, looked directly at her while addressing the class: “Don’t go faster than me. If you finish the move before me, you’re not doing the work.” She began to follow the suggested tempo.

Lo and behold: the first eight-count up and down squat, she barely made it back to standing. The eight-count squat immediately following she did at half her range. Then she skipped every other repetition. This continued for the remainder of the class. She wasn’t strong enough to lift her weight slowly, without resting in between.

But she looks great! So does it matter, really?

Enh, maybe yes, maybe no. If she’s not hurting herself, exercising with “incorrect” form is probably better than not exercising at all. Besides, everyone’s body is different, and perhaps form is all relative.

revision

Revision notes

But I found myself thinking it’s a lot like writing. Sometimes when I’m inspired I throw words down and they look brilliant! They are fabulous! It is only when I re-read them the next day, with pacing and rhythm in mind, that I notice those slap-dashed words do not carry the weight of my ideas through to the end. And just as I love the burn of the slow moves in the weightlifting class, I love revising. I love looking for exactly the right word. I love playing with phrases and clauses.

I prefer to be able lift all my weight for all the repetitions, at whatever tempo is suggested. I prefer to have an idea about when to use a compound sentence, and when to use a simple sentence, and when to use a fragment. I’d also prefer to have the genius of Shakespeare and a muffin-top-free waistband.

Alas. Neither the muse nor the fat fairy has gifted me thus.

The burn ...

The burn …

No matter. I still enjoy the burn, and whether my words live on after my plump self has gone, I continue to find satisfaction in aiming to get the form right.

May it be so for you as well.

 

On the importance of faking it

Two of my writing pals (w.p.s) are therapists, and we recently explored the reasons we’re not-writing some of our stories. Primarily because we don’t want to upset people who are still alive. We played with ideas for pseudonyms, or name withheld, as is done for some of the “Readers Write” pieces in The SunThen w.p. 1 shared that a former client had published an article wherein my w.p.’s therapeutic advice was quoted — anonymously. At least it was accurate, she said. Sometimes, she continued, clients credit me with advice I know I wouldn’t have given.

Perhaps all of us have had that experience: someone tells a story wherein we play a role, and their version of the story puts words in our mouths or jitterbugging on our dance moves, words and jitterbugging we either have no recollection of, or that we feel very confident we would neither have spoken nor danced.

I’ve experienced this a couple of times: once with a fellow mother who says I told her daughter (5 y.o., dressed up as a princess and wasn’t she *beautiful!*) it’s inner beauty that counts (sounds like me, have no memory of saying it); another time with a colleague who tells me that at the end of a group meeting where we were expressing gratitudes, I stated that I was grateful for birth control (OK, well, maybe I would have said that, but not at that particular meeting!).

So I’ve had enough opportunities to learn that the truism about not knowing how we’re affecting other people is, in fact, true. But the week before Christmas, I forgot this. My sons were sleeping late that week, and playing video games and raiding the fridge and generally having a Fine Time Of It (well, the 17 y.o. had basketball practice most mornings, but still!), and on this particular morning, I was sweating over the details of boxing up cookies for the relatives. And I wasn’t being very calm or polite or zen-y, I was muttering under my breath and then I was squawking in what I know is an unpleasant-to-hear tone. Perhaps my decibels increased.

Hank guarding some guy

The 17 y.o. (white jersey) guarding some guy.

At which point the 17 y.o. came in from basketball practice, assessed the situation and took a shower before tackling cello practice. After cello, he and his sweetie headed out for their own Xmas fun, driving to see some spectacular lights in Bedford County. Then they went out for a nice dinner and he texted they’d be home by 11. And he was. But his girlfriend, god bless her, had driven him home because when he went to get in his car, he sort of stumbled and he was dizzy and he felt sick.

Turns out he’d taken a shoulder/knee combo to the head in basketball practice. That he didn’t remember it, only remembered sitting on the floor with people around him. That he took himself out of practice for the rest of the practice. That his coach had called him mid-afternoon to see how he was doing. He’s already had two concussions, so he had a pretty good idea that this was, likely, another one. A third one. The one that his doctor and his parents have said will mean he has to stop playing basketball.

But when I’d grumpily, perfunctorily asked, how was practice, he’d said fine. Because he’d already heard me grumping in the kitchen and who wants to deal with a grumpy mother who’s said if you get another concussion you can’t play contact sports anymore? No one wants to deal with a grumpy mama, grumpy anyone. I don’t. But I was so caught up in my own angst about the packages I foreclosed even the remote possibility that he might have mentioned something about his concussion* when he returned from practice. I have now Officially Learned My Lesson. The temporary relief that grumping provides me is not worth its cost: it closes off communication, interaction, engagement, connection. So now, even when I am grumpy I am trying to behave, if not cheerfully, at least neutrally. (Note: I do not always succeed.) And here’s the connection to writing: even when I don’t feel like writing, I am trying to behave as if I’m a writer, because if I don’t, I close off all those same opportunities: communication, interaction, engagement, connection).

15 minutes is all it takesSo I set my timer for fifteen minutes and I uncap my pen, lay out my paper (sometimes I have to light a candle and make tea because some days, when I feel really grumpy, it is HARD to begin writing) and then I hit “start” on the timer and I write. Sometimes I write all the reasons I am not a writer. Sometimes I doodle. Sometimes I draft dialogue or make a list of questions for my piece. Sometimes I bitch and moan about groceries, laundry yadda yadda yadda. And more often than not, I continue after the timer’s ding, finishing the dialogue or thinking about the answers to the questions or looking up a word or, on the really good days, writing all the way through to the end of a piece. Or revising a paragraph or two of a piece in progress. There is much to be said for fake it ’til you make it.

May it be so.

* he recovered quickly and we are consulting neurologists about the risks of continuing to play basketball. He is playing now — scoring in the double digits sometimes — and he loves it. We are wrestling with: getting out of bed and walking out the door has inherent risks and if you love an activity deeply, do you stop doing it because of the risk? Do you take up cross-country or golf only to get a concussion when you trip on the trail or an errant ball bounces into you? Or to ruin your knees, hips, shoulders? No easy answers here and curses upon our limited human experience of time and life as a single linear event without the possibility of testing different paths.